It’s the start of a holiday weekend, and you’re chugging along in traffic. You’re in the left-most lane and see your exit coming up. You begin the tricky process of timing your lane change for when there’s available space while accounting for the cars in the next lane over, the car in front of you, and your navigation system providing constant notifications. My PhD research is focused on studying temporal attention, which is the brain mechanism that enhances your focus and perception in these sorts of moments to ensure that you can perform time-sensitive actions. It is also one of the many components that makes up what we all know as attention.
Attention has been a focus of philosophers and psychologists alike. William James, one of the founders of modern psychology, defined attention as “taking possession by the mind of…what seem several simultaneously possible objects”. Since this time, there have been significant strides in research to understand that attention is not just one mechanism, but many unique mechanisms that are located across many different areas of the brain. When we think about how important attention is for both day-to-day functioning and for executing high-risk tasks like making lane changes on a busy highway, it makes sense that our brain would have evolved multiple tools in its attention arsenal.
In a model that was developed by my supervisor’s supervisor, Dr. Michael Posner, and later revised by my supervisor, Dr. Raymond Klein, the different components of attention can be broken down by asking two questions: where was attention being focused, and how was it initiated. When we classify attention this way, research has found that there are multiple different mechanisms that are generated by different areas of the brain. This sounds complex (to be fair, it kind of is, but so is the world we operate in), but it is less intimidating if we take a closer look:
WHERE was attention being focused:
There are three ‘domains’ that all have their own dedicated attention mechanism in our brain: space, time, and task. Space is possibly the most generally understood, and we use it to attend to areas of our environment, like reading a billboard on the highway. Time, as explained above as my main interest, allows us to prepare our focus to particular intervals of time to ensure we are ready to react and absorb more of the world around us. Task allows us to attend to what we are doing at that moment and filter out distractions, like ignoring your phone ringing while trying to finish an email.
HOW was attention initiated:
Think of your muscles: we have voluntary muscle movements, like extending your arms to give someone a hug, and reflexive muscle movements, like when your doctor hits your knee with that hammer thing. Attention works off the same principle: we can voluntarily engage our attention across space, time, and task, but it can also be reflexively engaged. The reflexive component is important for keeping us alive, as it allows us to automatically and quickly attend to important things in our environment, like a poisonous snake in the grass, or a car honking at us to get out of the way.
There is a reflexive and voluntary version of each of these WHERE components. We spend quite a bit of time in the lab using brain-imaging tools and computer tasks to compare how these different components differently impact an individual’s processing of the world and performance on different measures. Doing so leads to more accurate measures of attentional dysfunction as it relates to neurological disorders (like ADHD) or traumatic brain injuries and strokes. We can then develop better treatments or programs to get individuals back to more normal attention functioning.
I look forward to explaining my particular area of expertise, the differences between our voluntary and reflexive attention in time, in my following blog posts. But for now, I will leave you with the earth-shattering realization that attention isn’t one mental operation, but instead, like, six different things.