Decoding electrical signals in the brain that help us pay attention
Almost every moment in our day, there are numerous sights and sounds that reach our eyes and ears. The ability to pick out important sensory information from this is critical for survival. This is what’s involved in “paying attention.”
How we pay attention varies considerably between individuals. Some people are particularly good at maintaining focus, while others are more distractible. Our ability to pay attention can also change throughout the day and throughout our lives. Difficulties in paying attention can also be a feature of clinical disorders, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Attention acts as a gateway to other higher functions in the brain. As a consequence, these attention variations have ramifications for other cognitive abilities, such as remembering. Attention variations also have implications for health and safety. For example, the ability to pay attention is critical when driving—numerous traffic injuries and deaths are attributed to lapses in attention.
Canada Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience John McDonald is working to understand how paying attention affects perception and performance. His team records the brain’s electrical activity while individuals perform a variety of attention-demanding tasks. McDonald has developed methods to isolate brain activity associated with attentional selection and suppression of potentially distracting stimuli. This enables McDonald and his team to determine when an individual (or group) is keeping their attention on a task, and when they divert their attention to irrelevant distractions.
McDonald is primarily interested in examining the attentive capabilities of healthy individuals, but his research may ultimately shed light on attentional disorders of the brain.