Navigation Links
How do we split our attention?

Imagine you're a hockey goalie, and two opposing players are breaking in alone on you, passing the puck back and forth. You're aware of the linesman skating in on your left, but pay him no mind. Your focus is on the puck and the two approaching players. As the action unfolds, how is your brain processing this intense moment of "multi-tasking"? Are you splitting your focus of attention into multiple "spotlights?" Are you using one "spotlight" and switching between objects very quickly? Or are you "zooming out" the spotlight and taking it all in at once?

These are the questions Julio Martinez-Trujillo, a cognitive neurophysiology specialist from McGill University, and his team set out to answer in a new study on multifocal attention. They found that, for the first time, there's evidence that we can pay attention to more than one thing at a time.

"When we multi-task and attend to multiple objects, our visual attention has been classically described as a "zoom lens" that extend over a region of space or as a spotlight that switches from one object to the other," Martinez-Trujillo, the lead author of the study, explained. "These modes of action of attention are problematic because when zooming out attention over an entire region we include objects of interest but also distracters in between. Thus, we waste processing resources on irrelevant distracting information. And when a single spotlight jumps from one object to another, there is a limit to how fast that could go and how can the brain accommodate such a rapid switch. Importantly, if we accept that attention works as a single spotlight we may also accept that the brain has evolved to pay attention to one thing at the time and therefore multi-tasking is not an ability that naturally fits our brain architecture"

Martinez-Trujillo's approach in getting to the bottom of this long-standing controversy was novel. The team recorded the activity of single neurons in the brains of two monkeys while the animals concentrated on two objects that circumvented a third 'distracter' object. The neural recordings showed that attention can in fact, be split into two "spotlights" corresponding to the relevant objects and excluding the in-between distracter.

"One implication of these findings is that our brain has evolved to attend to more than one object in parallel, and therefore to multi-task," said Martinez-Trujillo. "Though there are limits, our brains have this ability."

The researchers also found that the split of the "spotlight" is much more efficient when the distractors are very different from the objects being attended. Going back to the very apt hockey analogy, Martinez-Trujillo explained that if a Montreal Canadiens forward is paying attention to two Boston Bruins in yellow and black, he'll have a more difficult time ignoring the linesmen, also wearing black, than if he was in a similar situation but facing two Vancouver Canucks with blue and green uniforms, easily distinguishable from the linesmen in black'.

In the next generation of experiments, the researchers will explore the limits of our ability to split attention and multi-task looking more closely at how the similarity between objects affects multi-tasking limits and how those variables can be integrated into a quantitative model.

Contact: Allison Flynn
McGill University

Related biology news :

1. Dwarf crocodiles split into three species
2. Dancing adatoms help chemists understand how water molecules split
3. Weizmann Institute scientists develop a unique approach for splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen
4. Cells split personality is a major discovery into neurological diseases
5. Understanding a cells split personality aids synthetic circuits
6. MIT researchers harness viruses to split water
7. Biosensors reveal how single bacterium gets the message to split into a swimming and a stay-put cell
8. China fossil shows bird, crocodile family trees split earlier than thought
9. 25 Tesla, world-record split magnet makes its debut
Post Your Comments:
(Date:10/29/2015)... Oct. 29, 2015  Connected health pioneer, Joseph ... explosion of technology-enabled health and wellness, and the business ... The Internet of Healthy Things . ... smartphones even existed, Dr. Kvedar, vice president, Connected Health, ... care delivery, moving care from the hospital or doctor,s ...
(Date:10/27/2015)... , Oct. 27, 2015 Synaptics Inc. (NASDAQ: ... announced that Google has adopted the Synaptics ® ... solutions to power its newest flagship smartphones, the Nexus ... --> --> ... to provide strategic collaboration in the joint development of ...
(Date:10/23/2015)... GOLETA, California , October 23, 2015 ... and SensoMotoric Instruments (SMI) announce a mobile plug and ... captured during interactive real-world tasks SensoMotoric Instruments ... of their established wearable solutions for eye tracking and ... behavior captured with SMI Eye Tracking Glasses 2w ...
Breaking Biology News(10 mins):
(Date:11/25/2015)... , Nov. 25, 2015 /PRNewswire/ - Aeterna Zentaris Inc. ... its business and prospects remain fundamentally strong and ... (zoptarelin doxorubicin) recently received DSMB recommendation to continue ... following review of the final interim efficacy and ... Primary Endpoint in men with heavily pretreated castration- ...
(Date:11/25/2015)... , Nov. 25, 2015 Orexigen® Therapeutics, ... will participate in a fireside chat discussion at the ... New York . The discussion is scheduled for ... .  A replay will be available ... Contact:McDavid Stilwell  , Julie NormartVP, Corporate Communications and ...
(Date:11/25/2015)... ... November 25, 2015 , ... Jessica ... on AngelList early in their initial angel funding process. Now, they are paying ... looking to make early stage investments in the microbiome space. In this, ...
(Date:11/24/2015)... HILLS, N.J. (PRWEB) , ... November 24, 2015 , ... ... as the recipient of the 2016 USGA Green Section Award. Presented annually since 1961, ... golf through his or her work with turfgrass. , Clarke, of Iselin, ...
Breaking Biology Technology: