Attention Number 1—Directed
If you do too much concentrating, Directed
Attention can fatigue. It
can get tired, run down, and work less and less well. In extreme
cases, it can even become unavailable. But what is Directed Attention
like when it’s not fatigued? What is it, and how does it act when
it’s working well?
You are probably already quite familiar with Directed Attention from
everyday life. There are many different names for it, including concentration,
effortful attention, and focus.
You use this kind of attention when you have to stick with a task despite
boredom or distractions. You even use it when you are involved in activities
we really enjoy. Because most activities involve some boring or difficult
We have to struggle master this ability to concentrate as kids. William
James linked it to willpower, and it is also part of what we refer to
as self-discipline. It allows us to do things that don’t
come naturally—like math and writing and resisting temptations.
You need it to ignore distractions, make a plan and follow through, and
not just wander off. Without it, you might not starve to death
or get run over by trucks, (another kind of attention, involuntary attention
or fascination, handles such basics) but you'd have a much harder time
making it through school, doing most jobs, or getting along well with
The central thing to remember about Directed Attention is that it is
inhibitory attention. It does not work by turning up the volume on a
particular thought. Instead, it makes other current thoughts quiet
down. It inhibits them.
When we talk about inhibition here, we do not mean the uptight, unable
to relax and party kind of inhibition. We are talking about inhibitory
attention—which is another name for Directed Attention.
It uses Global inhibition, a brain-wide modulating system which can damp
down activity in parts of the brain. This is a critically important
function—without this kind of system-wide inhibitory capacity,
the brain would go into runaway, and we would have totally scrambled
thoughts and seizures.
The Directed Attention system uses a part of this global inhibitory capacity. This
behind-the-scenes inhibition quiets things down overall, so local activity
can keep going and become stronger.
And that is how this odd and interesting system works. In order
to concentrate, you don’t just turn up the mental volume of a particular
You also have to turn everything else DOWN, using inhibitory system circuits
in your frontal cortex and midbrain.
This way you cool down the overall go-go activity of your thoughts and
perceptions. It damps down certain areas of thought so that others might
shine. It lets the small fragile idea be heard and nurtured. It’s
like calming a rowdy classroom, so the little quiet kid in the corner
can be heard.
When you inhibit all the other activity, you make room for the particular,
sometimes fragile, train of thought you need at the time. This
single active train of thought can then gain energy and grow.
Rather than being stuck with what’s loudest, you can follow less
flashy ideas, and even allow fragile new creative thoughts to take hold.
This system quiets competing activity long enough for you to form new
associations, lay down new memories, compare, sort things out, and act. It
permits focus and flexibility in many areas of thought.
Inhibition is always at work in your brain, rising and falling in a complex
dance over different areas, so fast and quiet you never notice it—until
something goes wrong.
However, quieting other activity to make room for a particular train
of thought takes inhibitory chemicals, and, like other brain chemicals,
these can become depleted. You can use up your inhibition juice. So
you have to do things that preserve and also replenish this inhibitory
substance. We will discuss this in detail later.
Skillful use of this kind of mental inhibitory system is a huge accomplishment
we all struggle to acquire in childhood. This hard-won skill is the basis
for many important human successes.
Life cycle and inhibitory attention
It is also a relatively recent addition to human consciousness, and is
still quite fragile!
Learning to concentrate, to use our voluntary directed attention system,
is one of the major mental tasks of childhood. As children we repeatedly
practice focusing on things that may be boring, we learn to stay with
a project despite exciting things happening all around us, and we even
learn to do, ugh, math problems. (And some of us even grow to really
love the challenge of doing math problems!)
We learn to delay our responses to attractive temptations that appear,
and get back to business. Good directed attention skills let us
study and compare and organize and plan. When the Directed Attention
system is working well, we feel alert, focused, on top of things, and
often don’t even notice anything about attention at all.
But when it is not working, we feel irritable and unfocused and unpleasant
and lost. In fact, this is a safety feature. The ability
to concentrate is important to our survival, and we are built to feel
bad when our attention is not working. Most of the time, however,
it is like a heartbeat-- such a basic process that we usually do not
notice it. We are too busy interacting flexibly with people, the environment,
and our own ideas.
Although you are most likely to notice directed attention when it starts
to falter, even then, it can be hard to tell exactly what the problem
is. This system is very deep and widespread and touches so many
mental functions. Sometimes you clearly can’t concentrate. But
other times you might get locked into an activity and can’t stop
doing something. Sometimes you might feel irritable, or confused,
have trouble making decisions. Sometimes you might just have a
general feeling of wrongness.
One caution here—Directed Attention Fatigue in itself is NOT an
illness, ailment, or syndrome.
It IS just plain fatigue of a particular system.
But if you repeatedly extremely fatigue the system, use your inhibitory
system too long and too hard— even in the service of something “good”,
like schoolwork or a demanding job without enough sleep, or entertaining
activities that are fun but require quite a bit of focus, like playing
video games too long and hard, or watching too much TV, the system may
become permanently changed, making you more susceptible to mental fatigue
in the future.
All this concentration, discipline, and focus—is this gonna
If all this sounds like work, well, it is. You may not notice it,
but you are working when you concentrate. And when you have to concentrate,
especially with distractions around, it can start to hurt. Even
literally, if you frown or clench your muscles, trying to increase your
Effortful attention—um—takes effort. We are not born
with Directed Attention. It grows, starting at a tender age, after
we have gotten a grip on things like chewing and walking. We are
learning to use it earlier, but by kindergarten, (see Posner section)
our Directed Attention really has to work. And we mostly do get
better at it. We work hard in elementary school to develop the
skill of focusing our attention.
It takes many years for us to get really good at concentration—even
in adolescence we are still struggling. A lack of early practice
of this skill can hamper our later lives as severely as if we did not
master arithmetic. More so, because the ability to ignore distractions
and focus on our goals—on what we ourselves think is important,
not just what we hear from outside—this is central to much of what
we care about most. When we look at the difficulty and suffering
of the rare few who have severe genetic attention difficulties, who have
to fiercely struggle to concentrate, we see how essential it is to have
good concentration skills.
Having choices: To respond or not to respond
If you stop and think about it, one of the most important aspects of
Directed Attention is that it gives us a chance to opt-out, even for
a moment, of being merely stimulus-response organisms.
In a way, this is one of our most important human abilities. We
do not just blindly respond. We are not just running on instincts. We
are not programmed from birth to think or act in a particular way to
a particular event.
With Directed Attention we can go offline, stop an automatic reaction,
even one we have previously learned, and think things over. It
gives us a chance to consider, decide, scheme, plot, dream, plan, and
By allowing us to cool down brain activity, inhibitory attention gives
us a small space where we do not have to respond automatically. And
this may be the beginning of freedom.
Most creatures, and indeed most humans, most of the time, just react
to circumstances. And that is often a good idea. It’s
fast, clear, efficient. Something happens, we respond. In
a natural environment, with natural opportunities and dangers, we have
built-in responses that will carry us through most situations.
But that is not always the best option. It can be a bad idea to
run and hide when you hear a loud noise. It can be a bad idea to eat
whenever you see food. It can be a bad idea to blindly follow your passion
when wood needs chopping, water needs carrying, and dinner needs to be
In the modern world, there are also dangers to which we have no built-in
response—toxic chemicals, sunburn, odd social situations. We
need to inhibit our automatic reactions--or non-reactions to such situations.
There are also many things that we should not always respond to even
though they are automatically attractive: gluttony, lust, and sloth are
a few. Directed attention gives us that extra capacity to resist.
Many of us, in fact, are quite familiar with one danger zone—we
know that we will have more trouble resisting when we are tired.
Or we may be deceived—by people, advertisements, even camouflaged
plants or animals, and in this case it is essential to be able to stop
and think. An attractive initiation may actually be a scam, and
we need to stop long enough to check it out and decide how to respond.
People also have multiple interests and needs which do not always go
together. We may have a multitude of opportunities. Directed
Attention gives us the space to pick and choose. It allows us to
delay some things and decide the order in which we will do things. It
lets us modify our responses, or correct them in mid-action. It
even gives us the sometimes life-saving option of not responding at all.
You can do most of this without Directed Attention, but it is much harder. That
requires establishing strong habits, rules and cognitive frameworks beforehand,
in order not to be swept away by events. The problem with this,
of course, is that the unexpected always happens. In order to act
responsibly, you need to use Directed Attention to make decisions. And
things keep changing, so some of the old habits may not make sense anymore. While
habits and rules are very useful, and help you preserve your attention
juice, Directed Attention gives you the extra edge when something unexpected
happens, or when you just need to think things through.
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