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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The attention process: much more than just a look.

In the post about attention to details in this blog, who watches the video may notice than more distance between stimuli easier to notice differences. Many of the observers of the video are adults, theoretically adapted, they sit down every single day front their computer screens and pay attention, but even they need at least 3 video scenes to realize what is going on.

Then what, is it the attention something specific? , what does it mean when we ask to a child to pay attention?

Attention depends basically of the development of multiple brain structures, but socially is given more importance to visual attention, so all sensory processes converge to make possible to notice something.

 In a colloquial way, attention is defined as the selective perception and directed that focuses on the interest a particular source of stimulation, or the effort and concentration on a task (Van Zomeren and Brouwer, 1994). The complexity comes when someone is trying to pay attention at the same time than many complex stimuli are around: something is flashing, there is all kind of noises, something smells good or bad, and also it's possible to feel pressure on muscles ... and we must add that children always have an adult saying: pay attention, as if someone has an idea what that is ...

The Attention, like all neurocognitive process is adaptive, this means that neural networks must be developed to allow someone to be more or less sensitive to visual stimuli or auditory. At this sense, seems logical that a fisher has a better vision even when sun reflexes on the sea, at the same time than waves move his ship and must  respond to his position in the vastness of the ocean, considering the weather and time of day, trying to avoid a feeling seasick thanks the movement of your boat and find the richest shoal that can give him a good day of work.

Now let's think about children who are sitting on a sofa all day, only paying attention to a television,  viewing just front them  and maybe the only one source of distraction is hunger, which is satisfied with just stretch their hands.

Hence, it seems, the high increase of cases of attention deficit disorder is caused by lack of stimulation of the modern life. Looking ahead, this means that specialized networks in peripheral vision can be atrophied, because, even with larger screens,    oculomotor movement concentrates on just a little space, and on the other hand, auditory sense, always knows that sounds "exist only at the TV", so it is not necessary to prepare any response... and we must add less gaming spaces, except those required by the consoles ... yes!, we pay less attention to details, no doubt.

At this sense, sometimes restrictions affect only to neurocognitive process, such can be the case of the oculomotor restriction, which causes deficits only for sight, but in this case, attention is used in all sensory processing, from vision, hearing, taste, smell, haptic sense and thereof the combination (Estévez González, García Sánchez and Junque, 1997), including emotional perception this means that if there is not enough stimulation, it can be eliminated many important networks to face the concrete jungle, for example.

This is because in everyday life, people must take decisions that are almost life or death, observing movement of cars, to know when a food is not eatable or look closely faces details to see if the other person is smiling or ready for a fight, and what about while we cross the street?, it’s very important taking decisions: cross or stop, and watching at the same time, if driver is planning to remove the foot off the accelerator...

At school, children must recognize silly details from adult perspective, but those details are every day goal in classrooms, for example to distinguish between a, a, a and the difference between A, A & A?, subtle, Huh?. Children shall have the same difficulty that you had to recognize the differences at the first three or four scenes of the video ... so, is it enough just to ask and repeat them to pay attention?.

But sustained attention is actually a very complex world of decisions made by the brain every second. Researchers have tried to understand it using simple tasks, like those works conducted by Sackur and Dehaene (2009), which consists of two simple stimuli and a brain taking a decision between left or right or red and green.

But in real life, when children are in a classroom, trying to pretend that they are paying attention to the teacher, feeling that left shoe pinches, the edge of the trousers or skirt  slash their leg; the sun hits on their  arms;  pen is too small or too large to hold it, at the same time, nearer kid speaks tirelessly; there is a tree strangely moving  outside of the classroom; their stomachs are asking for water or the crushed sandwich inside the lunchbox, jealously guarded to recess... and sometimes we find restless children because a  baby brother woke up asking  for food  5 times during the night...yes, things in  real life  are always more difficult ... by the way, do you remember the child's name of this example? ...

After so much reading about the brain and complexity of the attention process, I stopped asking to my students to pay me attention, if the source of stimulation is rich and motivating, attention comes alone.

Alma Dzib Goodin 

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Van Zomeren, AH. y Brouwer, WH. (1994) Clinical neuropsychology of attention. Oxford University Press. New York.

Estévez González, A., García Sánchez, C. y Junque, C. (1997) La atención: una compleja función cerebral. Rev Neurol. 25 (148) 1989-1997.

Sackur, J. y Dehaene, S. (2009) The cognitive architecture of chaining of two mental operation. Cognition. 111. 187-211.

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