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Teaching the teachers: how neuroscience is helping us understand attention and memory

In our brains the different systems compete for attention. Image Shutterstok/Poznyakov
In our brains the different systems compete for attention. Image Shutterstok/Poznyakov

In-brain electrodes and memory tests taken under stressful conditions are revealing how our brains control attention, which could lead to new strategies for reducing distraction and help pupils to learn more effectively.

'There is a war in our brains,' says neuroscientist Dr Jean-Philippe Lachaux, Research Director at the French National Health Research Institute (INSERM) in Lyon, France. 'It is a competition between the habit system which allocates attention based on fixed rules and experience; the reward system; and the executive system mainly located in the frontal lobe.'

Between them, these systems combine to produce a priority map. If you want to concentrate on writing a report, doing a puzzle, having a conversation or reading a long article, you want your executive system to win the war.

But with so much external stimulation – from smart phones and noisy ringtones to TV shows and eye-catching billboards – it can be difficult to focus on your task.

‘Distractibility increases between six and 20 and is then pretty stable through adulthood.’

Dr Jean-Philippe Lachaux, Research Director at the French National Health Research Institute (INSERM)

Dr Lachaux, who is the lead researcher on the Distractibility study, funded by the EU's Marie Skłdowska-Curie programme for researchers, wants to figure out which tiny neural networks within these brain systems react when we are distracted. A deeper understanding of what is going on when we lose concentration could help neuroscientists to train people to resist distraction.

Much of the work in this area has been on 'zoning out' or mind-wandering. What Dr Lachaux and his team are interested in is 'micro mind-wandering': those brief flickers of distraction we experience when someone else's phone rings while we are doing a crossword puzzle.

'With micro mind-wandering you don't totally lose track but you experience interference,' said Dr Lachaux. 'For a couple of seconds, you are suddenly multitasking.'

At Dr Lachaux's lab in Lyon, they have a somewhat unorthodox approach - intracranial electroencephalogram (EEG). This involves placing electrodes into the brains of subjects, asking them to concentrate on a task performed on an iPad and then observing what happens when they are distracted by, for example, a ringing phone.

The study is done on patients with epilepsy who are connected to intracranial EEG for two weeks for therapeutic reasons. It was also completed by a control group aged from six to 60 years to benchmark the performance of the study group and reveal how concentration varies with age.

'The first thing we noticed is that distractibility increases between six and 20 and is then pretty stable through adulthood,' said Dr Lachaux. 'And, from the EEG group, we identified the areas implicated in these lapses of attention.'

Attention and learning

He believes these kinds of insights will pave the way for powerful intervention programmes that can be used to improve children's attention in schools. 'Even simply explaining to children that different brain areas are competing to control their attention can help kids to understand multitasking.'

Attention is important for learning as it plays a role in memory and a wandering mind can affect your ability to recall information. For mundane things like recalling details from a report or a text book you read yesterday, this can be annoying or inefficient, forcing you to re-read material you would have remembered if you had not been distracted.

But what about more emotionally extreme situations like witnessing a car accident or hearing a gunshot? Psychologists have been studying how emotion and stress affect our ability to concentrate and recall details.

Until recently, the consensus was that emotional stimuli consume so much of our cognitive resources that we forget other information we were receiving at that time. The idea was that our brain was designed to focus on something emotional at the expense of other information.

However, Dr Michiko Sakaki, a senior research fellow at the University of Reading, UK, says new findings from her research team suggest the reality may be more complex.

'Arousal has different effects depending on priority. When people encounter emotional stimuli it can, in fact, enhance attention to particularly salient information to which we attach high priority.'

Dr Sakaki, who leads the EU-funded Emotional and Control study, has been conducting controlled experiments on the interaction between emotion and cognition. To induce an emotional response, subjects receive electrical stimulation – which is unpleasant but not dangerous – while a high or low pitch tone is played.

They soon learn to associate the tone with the small electric shock. The researchers ask participants to play a memory game while listening to the dreaded tone. The question is then how well they perform at the memory task under the stress of fearing an electric shock.

'We found that participants' attention is affected by emotion and priority, such that they pay more attention to particularly vivid information or details that are highly relevant to them, but their retention of low-priority information is impaired,' said Dr Sakaki. Her team also found a similar pattern in participants' memory.

'This calls into question the traditional view that emotional arousal always impairs processing of other information,' she said. 'It is not so simple. Our notion that emotion enhances attention to, and retention of, high-priority information suggests that teachers could use positive emotional arousal in an educational setting to selectively enhance students' learning.'

Scanning the brain

In the 19th century, phrenologists believed that they could tell a lot about a person's ability and character by observing the shape of the skull. This was based on the idea that the brain was made up of a number of distinct areas responsible for specific tasks.

While phrenology has long been dismissed as pseudoscience, it turns out that modern neuroscience is somewhat in its debt. The phrenologists were wrong about lots of things, not least when it came to drawing conclusions about our moral wellbeing based on the bumps on our head.

But we now know that the brain can indeed be divided into several distinct sections. Functional MRI scanning can show which areas control movement, language, emotion and much else. Using fMRI scanning, researchers can see which brain areas light up when we are reading or listening to music; stressed or relaxed.

Scientist can also observe electrical activity in the brain using electroencephalography (EEG). This involves attaching electrodes to the scalp and can be used to diagnose epilepsy where electrical activity is abnormal. 

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