Flexibility of focus: what and how much?

Attention deficit: another modern malady of excess.  Too much food, and we became larger.  A surfeit of sitting, and we grew softer.  Now, with the information revolution, we wrestle with an excess of ideas, and we grow distracted.

Recently, science has begun to unearth the pitfalls of poor focus.  In one study, researchers at Stanford examined the cognitive consequences of multitasking and found that the chronically distracted lost the ability to control attention.  Cognitive performance suffered as a result.  Gross.

But regulating our attention is more interesting, and complicated, than focusing on one task at a time.  Yes, we must choose where to place our attention. However, we must also decide how much to focus.

A recent article in the Journal of Neuroscience, emphasizes the importance of intensity of attention as it relates to cognitive performance.  In this fascinating study, the authors rely on recordings from a group of neurons in the monkey brain that correlate with attention: the more neurons firing in this brain region, the more focused the monkey.  Intriguingly, the authors found that as the focus of the monkeys increased, so did performance on a visual discrimination task... To a point.  Surprisingly, when the monkeys were most focused, they often performed poorly when the task demanded recognition of large changes.  In these cases, focused monkeys were very good at detecting minute changes, yet large visual changes resulted in more errors for dialed-in monkeys.  Did the monkeys miss the forest for the trees?

This experiment highlights the fact that attention-regulation is comprised of two distinct capacities.  A first-order skill is the ability to focus on something in particular: a task, a concept, a process.  After we choose a target for attention, a second-order skill is the ability to select the level of intensity.  This metacognitive decision will largely depend on the nature of the task.  Are we brainstorming, trying to be creative, trying to be flexible?  In those cases, a wandering mind may be the way to go, as Jonah Lehrer argues in his piece about the importance of day-dreaming.  Or, are we trying to operate in a state of extreme precision?  Then, maximum attention-regulation is required, but not too much that it results in rigid performance.

Ultimately, peak performance on a task may require a flexible control of attention, both by choosing the target of our attention, and selecting an intensity of concentration that is appropriate for the task.  Not enough focus, and we make errors or don't get anything accomplished.  Too much focus and we get the yips, or sacrifice creativity.  The practical question: can our ability to regulate attention be modified?  Can we improve in these abilities?  I think we can, and will discuss this possibility in future posts.  What do you think?  Let me know in the comments.

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