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Interesting Findings And World Unfolding Through My Eyes.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Paying attention is a more important skill than you might think

IN THE FAST-PACED, distraction-plagued arena of modern life, perhaps nothing has come under more assault than the simple faculty of attention. We bemoan the tug of war for our focus, joke uneasily about our attention-deficit lifestyles, and worry about the seeming epidemic of attention disorders among children.

The ability to pay careful attention isn't important just for students and air traffic controllers. Researchers are finding that attention is crucial to a host of other, sometimes surprising, life skills: the ability to sort through conflicting evidence, to connect more deeply with other people, and even to develop a conscience.

But for all that, attention remains one of the most poorly understood human faculties. Neither a subject nor a skill, precisely, attention is often seen as a fixed, even inborn faculty that cannot be taught. Children with attention problems are medicated; harried adults struggle to "pay attention." In a sense, our reigning view of attention hasn't come far from that of William James, the father of American psychological research, who dolefully asserted a century ago that attention could not be highly trained by "any amount of drill or discipline."

But now scientists are rapidly rewriting that notion. After decades of research powered by fresh advances in neuroimaging and genetics, many scientists are drawing a much clearer picture of attention, which they have come to see as an organ system like circulation or digestion, with its own anatomy, circuitry, and chemistry. Building upon this new understanding, researchers are discovering that skills of focus can be bolstered with practice in both children and adults, including those with attention-deficit disorders. In just five days of computer-based training, the brains of 6-year-olds begin to act like adults on a crucial measure of attention, one study found. Another found that boosting short-term memory seems to improve children's ability to stay on task.

It is not yet known how long these gains last, or what the best methods for developing attention may turn out to be. But the demand is clear: Dozens of schools nationwide are already incorporating some kind of attention training into their curriculum. And as this new arena of research helps overturn long-standing assumptions about the malleability of this essential human faculty, it offers intriguing possibilities for a world of overload.

"If you have good attentional control, you can do more than just pay attention to someone speaking at a lecture, you can control your cognitive processes, control your emotions, better articulate your actions," says Amir Raz, a cognitive neuroscientist at McGill University who is a leading attention researcher. "You can enjoy and gain an edge in life."

. . .

Attention has long fascinated humankind as a window into the mind and the world in general, yet its workings have historically been murky. Eighteenth-century scientists, who considered unwavering visual observation crucial to scientific discovery, theorized that attention was a "pooling" of nervous fluid. Later, Victorian scientists eagerly probed the limits and vulnerability of attention, treating the subject of their inquiry with a mix of puzzlement and admiration. "Whatever its nature, [attention] is plainly the essential condition of the formation and development of mind," wrote Henry Maudsley in the early 1830s.

Posted by Ajay :: 5:02 PM :: 0 comments

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