As the old expression goes, timing is everything. Cyclists have to keep their heads on a swivel to time a safe lane change. Musicians sometimes have to count out dozens of bars before playing the correct note in sync with the rest of the band. Baseball players have an impossibly small window to hit a baseball when it’s travelling at them at speeds over 100 km/h.
As discussed in one of my previous blog posts, attention is made up of many unique mechanisms that help us engage with the external world. One of these mechanisms is temporal attention, or the ability to focus our attention at an upcoming interval to make sure that we are processing as much information as possible and generating the fastest and most accurate responses.
People are often more familiar with the concept of spatial attention; we use our eyes to focus on what we want to attend to, and things that occur outside this beam of attention typically go unnoticed (if you don’t believe me, do this ‘count the passes’ experiment at home). Temporal attention functions in a very similar fashion to spatial attention, but it is generated by its own independent set of mechanisms in the brain (and, obviously, deals with when instead of where).
In temporal attention research, simple experiments have provided a wealth of knowledge on how useful timing information is. Participants sit in front of a screen and are told to respond when a target appears. Sometimes the participant is given a warning as to when it will appear, and sometimes the target appears with no warning. When provided with a warning, participants respond faster and are more accurate at identifying different qualities of the target. However, it has been identified that this requires an attention trade-off: if you prepare for something to happen at one moment of time, and the event occurs unexpectedly outside of this period, we actually see attention is worse than if you were just reacting with no preparation. This shows us that temporal attention is demanding on our neural resources and requires a bit of time to charge back up between uses.
Many newer cars now have warning beeps or lights that go off when the car in front of you is quickly approaching, or when a car enters your blind spot. These are automated features designed to elicit your temporal attention so you can accurately and quickly execute the right action to avoid an accident.
Some important behaviours require rhythmic timing patterns, like walking or producing speech. Temporal attention has been found to engage with rhythms like these in a much more reflexive manner, meaning that they require little to no voluntary effort. When events occur synchronously with a steady rhythm, people’s attention is improved in comparison to when events fall outside of the rhythm.
Temporal attention is very important for navigating the world we live in. Researchers, like myself, are still working to understand exactly how it is organized in the brain and how it can be implemented effectively in the design of real-world systems.