As reported by http://www.sharpbrains.com/blog/2008/10/18/training-attention-and-emotional-self-regulation-interview-with-michael-posner/ during an interview with Michael I. Posner, a prominent scientist in the field of cognitive neuroscience:
I have been interested in how the attention system develops in infancy and early childhood.
One of our major findings, thanks to neuroimaging, is that there is not one single “attention”, but three separate functions of attention with three separate underlying brain networks: alerting, orienting, and executive attention.
1) Alerting: helps us maintain an Alert State.
2) Orienting: focuses our senses on the information we want. For example, you are now listening to my voice.
3) Executive Attention: regulates a variety of networks, such as emotional responses and sensory information. This is critical for most other skills, and clearly correlated with academic performance. It is distributed in frontal lobes and the cingulate gyrus.
The development of executive attention can be easily observed both by questionnaire and cognitive tasks after about age 3 –4, when parents can identify the ability of their children to regulate their emotions and control their behavior in accord with social demands.
Executive functions are goal-oriented. Executive attention is just the ability to manage attention towards those goals, towards planning.
Both are clearly correlated. Executive attention is important for decision-making (how to accomplish an external goal) and with working memory (the temporary storage of information). For example, given that you said earlier that you liked my monograph, I have been thinking of the subheadings and sections there as I provide you my answers, using my working memory capacity.
Neuroimaging allows us to identify sets of distributed areas that operate together. Different techniques allow us to see different things. For example, fMRI lets us see the activation of areas of grey matter. A more recent technique, diffusion tensor, is focused instead on the white matter. It detects connectivity among neurons, it helps us see a map of networks.
So far, a number of networks have been identified. For an illustration, you can see the wonderful interactive Brain Map by the University of Texas, San Antonio (Note: http://www.brainmap.org/).
Let me mention another fascinating area of research. There is a type of neuron, named the Von Economo neuron, which is found only in the anterior cingulate and a related area of the anterior insula, very common in humans, less in other primates, and completely absent in most non-primates. These neurons have long axons, connecting to the anterior cingulate and anterior insula, which we think is part of the reason why we have Executive Attention. Diffusion tensor allows us to identify this white matter, these connections across separate brain structures, in the live brain. From a practical point of view, we can think that neural networks like this are what enable specific human traits such as effortful control.
He then continues about attention training:
Several training programs have been successful in improving attention in normal adults and in patients suffering from different pathologies. With normal adults, training with video games produced better performance on a range of visual attention tasks. Training has also led to specific improvements in executive attention in patients with specific brain injury. Working-memory training can improve attention with ADHD children.
In one recent study we developed and tested a 5-day training intervention using computerized exercises. We tested the effect of training during the period of major development of executive attention, which takes place between 4 and 7 years of age.
We found that executive attention was trainable, and also a significantly greater improvement in intelligence in the trained group compared to the control children. This finding suggested that training effects had generalized to a measure of cognitive processing that is far removed from the training exercises.
A collaborator of our lab, Dr. Yiyuan Tang, studied the impact of mindfulness meditation with undergrads to improve exec attention, finding significant improvements as well. We hope that training method like this will be further evaluated, along with other methods, both as possible means of improving attention prior to school and for children and adults with specific needs.
Some attention training opportunities include:
The principal intention of the Institute is to further the theory of Reflexive Attention Diversion (RAD) as a major cause for discomfort and Attention Training as a method to alleviate discomfort and achieve greater happiness. Basic to the theory of RAD and Attention Training is the concept of awareness as the focal point for discomfort. If awareness of the “here and now” is maintained, attention cannot be converted into the negative thoughts that trigger discomfort.
Because RAD defines discomfort in terms of a reflex or “bad habit” originating in the body rather than in the mind, knowledge of personal background is not necessary for effective intervention. Instead, individuals concentrate their efforts on learning to focus awareness towards the present. This allows Attention Training to be taught in groups; making the procedure both cost and time efficient. The result is a refreshing, innovative, and highly successful approach to addressing discomfort and its origin.
You may also be interested in these researches about attention training:
This study tested the effectiveness of a new cognitive technique involving attention training. A single case systematic replication series (Sidman, 1960) was used to replicate and extend previous findings. In particular the effects of attention training on panic frequency, general anxiety, and beliefs was investigated across two panic disorder cases and one social phobia case, and across different therapists, and settings. A true reversal design was used in one of the cases. In this case attention training was followed by an attentional manipulation incompatible with the hypothesized effects of attention training so that the effects of attention training on target problems could be clearly evaluated on its re-introduction. The results are consistent with those of a previous study (Wells, 1990) and provide preliminary evidence that panic attacks, anxiety and beliefs can be effectively and lastingly reduced by cognitive techniques which do not directly target the content of negative appraisal. © 1997 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
This study evaluated the effectiveness of Attention Training (ATT; Wells, 1990) in the treatment of recurrent major depression. This technique is based on an information processing model of emotional disorders (Wells & Matthews, 1994) in which self-focused attention and metacognition maintain dysfunction. ATT was evaluated in a consecutive single-case series of patients referred for treatment of recurrent major depression. Patients were assigned to no-treatment baselines of 3 to 5 weeks, administered five to eight weekly sessions of ATT, and followed up at 3, 6, and 12 months posttreatment. The effects of ATT on depression, anxiety, negative automatic thoughts, rumination, self-focused attention, and metacognition were assessed. Following ATT, all patients showed clinically significant reductions in depression and anxiety. Reductions in negative automatic thoughts, rumination, and attentional and metacognitive factors showed similar improvements. All scores fell within the normal range on completion of ATT. Treatment gains were maintained at the 12-month follow-up assessments. However, randomized controlled trials of ATT are required before firm conclusions can be drawn.