$n$ Short attention span worth the work to improve

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Attention seems so simple. Just make yourself pay attention.

In reality, attention is not this simple. Attention is actually a system of factors within the brain that control and manage more than 22 different abilities. When some of these capabilities become impaired, or experience a deficit of some kind, this can make a person's life very difficult. In this article, I will discuss attention, why it can be difficult to pay attention, and interventions people can do to increase their own, or their children's abilities, to actually pay attention and sustain this over stress or boredom.

Our brain is on overload

The human being is constantly flooded with sensory stimuli from the world around us. Our sensory systems pick up sounds, sights, smells, feelings, tastes, and things to touch. We also have to know how to move in the space around us, where we are in relationship to other people, and anticipate what others may do or where other people may go.

This involves our attention system. As we are overrun with sensory information, the human brain needs to learn what to stop and pay attention to and what to ignore or inhibit. This is constant through the day, the week, the year, and our entire life.

The brain has some remarkable capabilities to do these things.

We actually have two major attention systems to accomplish these tasks. One is controlled attention and one is an automatic processing system. The controlled system allows the brain to be centered, focused, and ready to learn. The automatic system allows the brain to rest and take a break. In these instances, we go on "automatic pilot".

To compensate for our need to be on and then take breaks, the brain attempts to become quite good at tasks we often complete. When the tasks become repetitive, they become easier to understand and undertake. They become easier because we have moved the task into our automatic processing network. We have "trained our brain" so to speak.

Take driving for example. When we first learn to drive we have to make a concerted effort to pay attention to the speed limit, our speed, anything new that may get in the road, the other cars, if we should shift, etc. As we drive repeatedly over the years, all the tasks associated with routine driving becomes programmed into our brain. We no longer need to think in a controlled and conscious way in order to fully drive the car. It is now fairly automatic.

When a person is tired, ill, stressed, hungry, injured, experiencing chronic pain, or overwhelmed, the ability to decide and work efficiently can be compromised, resulting in an attention deficit. This may also happen as a part of the normal aging process.

Attention deficits are impairments in a person's ability to exact an effortful control over their brain and memory systems within the brain. When a person has an attention deficit they experience difficulties altering controlled tasks into automatic ones. Most tasks must be completed in a controlled and deliberate manner, which is very demanding.

We can experience an attention deficit due to a hearing or auditory processing impairment, a visual loss or visual processing impairment, an illness, an injury, due to medications, fatigue, and age. A person can also have an attention deficit caused by specific impairments within the brain. This is viewed as an attention deficit disorder or ADHD/ADD. These impairments can be from a wide array of brain dysfunction and may not look the same in every person. Attention deficits are also highly inheritable.

When a person is living with an attention deficit, they may not be aware of it. In other words, they perceive the world with this information processing deficit. This means internal and external information is perceived and understood in the brain with a memory system frayed and biased by distraction, omission of details, commission of impulsive and nonsensical errors, inconsistency, and a lack of self and other awareness.

The person believes the information now represented as their autobiography is factual. In reality it is information that has been programmed into a memory system that is based on a very limited data set. The results are poor academic and social judgment, reasoning and problem solving.

School is an area in which attention and memory are incredibly important. One of the most critical factors determining a person's success in school is the effectiveness of the concert between the attention and working memory systems. It is not whether or not a person is considered intelligent.

Can our brain be improved?

We are not necessarily "stuck" with the brain we were born with. The human brain is quite pliable and flexible.

Our brain is continually changing, with networks being formed and maintained in response to our environments and experiences in ways mediated by evolution, genetics and biology.

What this means is brain cell network formation and ongoing development happens due to life experiences we have. Our brain cells become structured into intricate maps. These maps form the templates for the chemicals that send messages to each cell and each cell network. These are strengthened when we do the same things all the time. This makes up our memories, our abilities, our behaviors, and our "knee jerk" reactions. They are a person's mental templates. In addition, the brain cell networks we no longer use are typically pruned from the brain and dissipate.

Environments change, therefore the demands expected of you within your environment can change. This allows psychologists and other health professionals to work with people to change and improve their current brain capabilities.

Cognitive remediation or "brain training" is a form of mental health treatment in which computer exercises are completed to build and enhance functioning of the brain.

The purpose is to train the brain of an individual who experiences impaired cognitive functioning (as the result of learning disabilities, ADHD, an autism spectrum disorder, etc.), individuals who have lost prior cognitive functioning (due to age, injury, or illness) or for people who just desire to improve their cognitive capabilities.

The exercises completed on the computer are individualized, done repeatedly, and are advanced when a person's abilities improve. This is not video games. Computer-assisted cognitive remediation is a mental health intervention conducted and directed by a trained professional. The games are educational and specifically designed to change or remediate impairments within the brain.

Cognitive remediation has been created to train and improve the following executive functions in both visual and auditory realms: working memory; vigilance; response inhibition; divided attention; selective attention; sustained attention; processing speed; focus and concentration; error detection and correction; and self-monitoring and self-regulation.

It is important to note lower-level attention processes also control higher-order thinking, problem solving and the behaviors that goes with these abilities. As the above factors of attention and memory start to recover and progress, the following higher order cognitive functions will also develop: meta-cognition, mental representation and listening; initiative; reasoning and judgment; motivation; planning; organization; problem solving; and reading.

When these aspects of the brain are impaired the daily functioning of an individual is quite compromised. As a result, many people with these problems also experience depression, anxiety, very low self-confidence and a lowered sense of self-worth.

When brain capabilities are improved, an individual's world will also expand. Therefore, their confidence and feelings of being an effective individual will get better.

I have provided a very simple description to an extremely complex issue. To find out more about the way the brain works and computer-assisted cognitive remediation, the University of Oregon Developmental Neurosciences Lab offers a DVD to watch online at www.changingbrains.org. In addition, research on attention and memory abilities and deficits is offered at www.braintrain.com and www.cogmed.com.

Sharon Stowe is a licensed mental health counselor in Walla Walla. She is currently completing her doctorate in psychology. Her dissertation research is on the human attention and memory systems.

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