Pay Attention! Studying the Secrets of Your Mind’s Ability to Focus
You’re driving down the road, paying attention to the cars around you when, suddenly, a thought enters your mind—it could be something from the workday, dinner plans or an idea for the distant future. Whatever the case, a few moments later you realize you’ve become so absorbed that you haven’t been paying attention to the road. Why was your mind completely focused on one thing one moment, and on something else the next?
In fact, what we pay attention to and what we do helps define us—sometimes in good ways, such as when we are able to focus on a tough task while surrounded by distractions, and other times in ways that frustrate us, as when we want to attend to one thing but find our minds distracted by another.
As Canada Research Chair in the Cognitive Neuroscience of Attention, Dr. Amir Raz studies how we pay attention and, specifically, what goes on inside our brains the moment we successfully focus our attention on one thing or, alternatively, fail to achieve that focus. It’s a topic Raz knows about in more ways than one, having used the power of attention many times to fool his audiences during his former career as a magician.
In his research, Raz uses novel types of attention—including the extreme conditions of hypnosis and sleep deprivation—to understand how the process works. He also looks for ways to understand important human achievements through the lens of attention, helping us better understand these successes. A highly successful mediator, for instance, is someone who can quickly get people who are very angry at each other, to focus on something else entirely, thereby regulating their actions and emotions.
By using modern brain-imaging tools, Raz will deepen our understanding of attention, one of the oldest and most important issues in psychological science, and an essential part of almost every other mental process. In time, such research will lead to innovations in education, new treatments for pathological conditions, and new ways to approach rehabilitation and cognitive training. It is difficult to achieve anything at all—let alone anything great—without being focused. By helping us understand how and why we pay attention to certain things, Raz’s research will show us new ways to focus on the things that matter most to us.