Pay Attention! The Relationship between Your Brain and Attention

Covert Attention, Magic Tricks, and Rebuilding Your Attention after a Stroke

By Richard Restak, MD, The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Learning a new skill doesn’t just take time—it takes sustained focus and concentration. In our ever-distracted culture, attention is a valuable commodity. Dr. Restak describes the relationship between attention and intention and offers insights on attention from a neuroscience perspective.

Brain concept inside man's head
The brain performs better at visually focusing on a single aspect of an object when a person intentionally concentrates on looking at that aspect. Photo by Peshkova / Shutterstock

Achieving Optimal Attention

Attention and concentration must be rock solid in order to marshal the effort needed to improve the performance of your brain. Attention in the mental sphere is like endurance in the physical sphere. Like an athlete, you can learn to focus your mental energies, but to do that you must successfully manage a prevalent factor in our current culture: distraction.

First of all, to be fully attentive, we have to be fully awake. If we’re drowsy or daydreaming, we’re not focused. If we’re overly stressed, we’re also not attending well and we can’t learn about what’s happening around us. 

We have to be in a narrow continuum, balanced in the middle between being sleepy and overly alert. That’s where we have highly focused attention and are able to look at something and get all the details about it.

Covert Attention

One type of attention called covert attention involves focusing on something without moving the eyes. Hermann von Helmholtz, an early physiologist, did an experiment involving covert attention.

In his laboratory, he wrote out some numbers and figures on a sheet and hung it up at the end of the hall. Then he turned the lights off and turned them on rapidly to see what he could see on the sheet. 

He didn’t see anything, but he found that if he voluntarily decided ahead of time what part of the sheet he was going to look at, when the light came on he was able to tell what those letters or numbers were. Thus, he was able to direct his attention to a particular part of the visual landscape and at the same time exclude his attention from all the other parts.

Focusing attention affects the brain by changing blood-flow patterns, in this case, to the visual areas of the brain. When Dr. Helmholtz was looking at the sheet, he was actually increasing blood flow to the visual part of the brain. It was highly specific; we learn about the world by turning our attention to certain parts of it. 

There’s also a linkage between intention and attention, just as in Helmholtz’s experiment. We decide to do something and then we devote our attention to it.

For example, in a magic trick, when a magician distracts your attention, he’ll say, “Look at this,” and when you do, the actual magic trick is happening elsewhere. The audience is directed to intentionally focus on something that’s not important to the trick.

If you look at a particular image, the upper part of the brain—the attentional network—can control what we’re paying our attention to, just like Helmholtz decided to look at a certain part of that screen. However, we also have sensory input coming from the various senses. 

If we’re stung by a bee, for example, our attention is directed to the injury. Therefore, a dynamism exists between focusing our attention on a particular subject and our attention being captured by events happening around us.

Attention and the Brain

Attention results in enhanced activity in various parts of the brain—the frontal, parietal, and insular cortices—plus an important area called the anterior cingulate, which is part of the limbic system. These all comprise a vast attentional network. 

Each has a particular function: The parietal formulates a dynamic representation, the frontal lobe formulates an action, and the limbic determines motivation, while the insular cortex is responsible for perception.

If attention is not being paid, it can be due to brain damage, typically after a stroke or brain injury. If you have damage to the right parietal lobe of the brain, then you aren’t paying attention to things on the left side—the things that you would see, feel, and touch—and you’d struggle with bodily integration. For example, a man won’t put his arm into the left sleeve of his shirt because of this inattention of his left side. 

People with this type of brain injury can use visual exercises to improve their attention on the affected side. Examples include scanning (with the eyes and/or head), word searches, and reading exercises with line guides.

Dr. Richard Restak is Clinical Professor of Neurology at The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. He earned his MD from Georgetown University School of Medicine. Professor Restak also maintains an active private practice in neurology and neuropsychiatry in Washington, D.C.