Saturday, December 15, 2007

Learning to Pay Attention

One of the things that sets professionals apart from amateurs is their ability to focus on their area of expertise. I mean that literally. For example, recent brain imaging studies of 20 non-musicians and 20 musical conductors showed that the brains of both groups diverted activity from visual areas of brain during listening tasks. Activity rose in auditory areas of brain as it fell in visual areas. But during the harder tasks, brain activity changes were less marked in the conductors. The conventional interpretation is that when the brain focuses, it becomes more active in the areas that are processing the subject of the focus. In well-trained subjects, such as conductors in this case, their brain doesn't have to work so hard to pay attention to music, so there is less need for the brain to be more active in the auditory areas. So what this suggests is that ability to focus is a learned capability that derives from an actual lasting change in brain.

In the experiment, subjects during the scan were asked to listen to two different musical tones palyed a few thousandths of a second apart and identify which was played first. The task was made harder for the conductors, to allow for the differences from non-musicians. During the task, brain activity increased in the auditory areas, while it decreased in visual areas. In other words, the brain seems to allocate processing resources to the part of the brain that needs it the most. As the task was made harder, non-musicians diverted more and more activity to the auditory region as they struggled to concentrate.

The leader of the study, Jonathan Burdette, said "This is like closing your eyes when you listen to music." That is, you can pay attention to the music better when you brain is not being distracted by visual stimuli. He went on to make this analogy: "Imagine the difference bewtween listening to someone talk in a quiet room and that same discussion in a noisy room - you don't see as much of what's going on in the noisy room."

Three conclusions for improving everyday memory come to my mind:

1. The more knowledgeable you become in a certain area, the easier it is to pay attention to salient information. That is, the more you know, the more you can know.This is a different twist on the old saying, "The rich get richer and the poor get poorer."

2. Focus, and the attendant remembering that focus enables, is affected by distracting stimuli. If you are trying to learn visual information (graphics or text), a noisy background of music will make remembering worse because your brain can't focus its resources where it belongs.

3. The more you know, the more you can know.

Source: Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center (2007, November 6). Listen Up, Tune Out: Training And Experience Can Affect Brain