May 2nd, 2011

A Model for Attention-Switching, Part I: Introduction

Throughout 2010 I suffered from ADD symptoms secondary to my long-standing sleep disorder.  Since December, I’ve been on medication to treat them.  Experiences both ill and treated proved to be missing pieces to a theory of attention-switching that I’ve been working on for a few years, and which I presented yesterday at the 2011 Boston Beyond I.Q. Conference.

Quite interestingly, this essay marks the first time in my life that I’ve given one of my popular brain-theory talks and gone home to write down a text version.  I said to myself, “if I don’t do this now, when it’s fresh in my mind, I’ll either never do it, or I’ll have to rethink things I’ve forgotten.” This reinforces the impression I’ve had that my current, medicated function is better than my lifetime baseline.  And there’s little question that I would never have received any kind of ADD diagnosis previously; I was simply at the very low end of normal.  This raises fascinating questions about the use of psychopharmacology to tweak personality for the better, which I am fortunately under no obligation to explore here.  Yet.


If you Google the title of this essay, you’ll get essentially nothing.  It doesn’t appear that anyone has created a model for how the brain chooses what to attend to and how it switches from one potential “attendum” (we might as well get the ugly necessary neologism on the table as soon as possible) to another.  No one has ever cooked up a mechanism that explains what’s going on the brain when we hyperfocus versus when we’re distractible, or why some people are prone to one or the other.

This is not quite as surprising as it might sound.  To begin with, the vast bulk of the psychological literature on attention explores what might be called micro-attention; you ask a bunch of subjects to switch between attending to the red dots and the green dots on a computer screen, and explore the factors that affect performance on this task.  Frankly, it’s simply not that interesting to wonder what brain mechanisms are involved in this; it’s very nuts-and-bolts and not big-picture.

If, however, you asked the subjects to attend to either the red and green dots, or what to make that evening for dinner, that’s very different.  That’s macro-attention.  And I don’t think it’s well appreciated that switching from one task or set of thoughts to an entirely different one is in fact a shift of attention; I think that changes in behavior that large-scale are more often viewed under a much broader lens, in terms of general executive function.  But it is such shifts in macro-attention, not micro-attention, that get out of control in Attention Deficit Disorder, and lead to unfulfilled lives characterized by countless unfinished projects.  Asking what mechanism might underlie macro-attentional shifts—that’s provocative.

There are two further reasons why no one has tackled such a model.  First, there is a tendency to roughly equate attention with consciousness, since we are usually conscious of what we are attending to, and vice versa.  And there are enough models of consciousness to populate a competition reality show.  I think there’s an assumption that when we crack the consciousness problem we’ll get the keys to macro-attention as a lovely parting gift, and that since the two are so closely related, it must furthermore be impossible to model attention without a model of consciousness.  So no one’s working on attention even if they’ve had my insight about macro-attention.

But in fact consciousness and attention are far from identical.  We are often conscious of much that we are not attending to; when I made this point yesterday in my oral presentation it was pointed out to me that there was in fact a hellacious pounding coming through the ceiling at that very moment (which I hadn’t yet noticed).  And the attentional blindness experiments pioneered by my old Harvard Cognitive Psych 101 professor, Daniel Simon, have demonstrated that we are in fact not conscious of much of what we are attending to.  Under the right circumstances, for instance, you can talk to a stranger without being sufficiently conscious of their appearance to discriminate them from a clever replacement (“I woke up this morning and everything in my room had been replaced by a merely decent approximation” is the corresponding Stephen Wright joke).  There are enough differences between the two that we should be emboldened to tackle a model of attention that will work with a model of consciousness to be named later.

Finally, the key to macro-attention turns out (according to me) to be a type of memory called “prospective memory.”  The folks studying attention are probably over-specialized and not thinking at all about memory—after all, at first glance the two don’t seem to be much related.  The folks studying prospective memory are well aware that it is involved in a form of attention-switching (specifically, when we tell ourselves to “stop and get milk on the way home” and then remember to do so when we see the supermarket), but they apparently haven’t asked themselves whether the mechanisms of prospective memory might be involved in all macro-attentional shifts.  Which is a shame, because if they did, they’d see that those prospective memory mechanisms do much more than just prevent cookies from being washed down with Coke: they are arguably the most important components in the organization of thought.

Note: Comments and feedback encouraged ... ditto for spreading the link.  I want to see if I can leverage this new technology to produce a better theory ...

Next: Prospective Memory