Tag Archives: Attention training: how to train attention

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.