This post was written by Ellen Newman, an adjunct professor of psychology at IE University in Spain. A veteran student and teacher of psychology, having earned a BA in the field from Harvard and a PhD in Developmental Psychology from Michigan, Ellen joined the extended Brainscape team in 2014.
Have you heard of Adderall-doping or the “good-grade” pill? Students in high schools around the U.S. are turning more and more to the powerful narcotics Adderall or Ritalin to give them an academic push (Schwarz, 2012). But why? It’s simple. Just one pill can fill you with enough energy to pull an all-nighter or give you hours of laser-like focus. This uninterrupted attentional surge can pull you through even the most grueling of standardized tests, high school exams, or athletic events. It is essentially the new “academic steroid” (Schwarz, 2012). Sounds appealing, right?! It should. Who doesn’t want the ability to stay awake and focused for longer? Who wouldn’t want to have a laser-like concentration that lasts for hours? Imagine the things we could accomplish!
But beware: these drugs are powerful, and have been linked to many deaths and health complications. Most users don’t realize that these are substances with significant side effects. And, of course, they’re illegal to use without a prescription.
Unfortunately, without the extra aid of these types of narcotic substances, most of us are not able to pull all-nighters. In fact, many of us regularly struggle with the ability to focus for long periods of time… or even increasingly, for shorter periods of time. Attention seems to be in increasingly short supply. This is not just true for us old, overworked adults. ADHD (attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder) has become the most frequently diagnosed childhood neurobehavioral disorder (Pomerantz, 2005). Between 2001 and 2010, there was a 24 percent increase in the number of reported cases of ADHD (Nauert, 2013). This averages out to a 3 percent increase per year between 1997 and 2006 and a 5 percent increase per year since 2006 (CDC, Data and Statistics). Roughly 5 to 7 percent of children around the world have received a formal diagnosis of ADHD.
What is so worrying about these numbers is that it reveals a lack of one of the most basic necessities for modern life. It is impossible to miss the importance of attention in all aspects of our daily lives. Attention is the fuel for our performance. If we can’t pay attention, we fail. We fail at work. We fail at home. We even fail at some of the simplest tasks like driving, cooking a meal, or just watching a documentary. So, why is attention such a fickle mistress?
Attention is a limited resource. One popular theoretical conceptualization is that attention is similar to a cognitive spotlight — a mechanism that we can consciously (and unconsciously) move around to bring things into focus (Goldstein, 2011). Implicit in this conceptualization is the idea that attention is limited. You can spread the beam “broadly and weakly” or you can focus it “narrowly and more powerfully.” You can also split the beam to attend to multiple, distinct activities, but the power of each beam is weaker. Thus, the mechanism itself is to blame. So, what can we do? If we don’t want to turn to academic doping, is there anything we can do to augment this limited resource?
Over the last 10 years, a plethora of cognitive training programs have been designed to improve our mental fitness. Many of these programs are designed to “train” our attention, working memory, and, more generally, our executive functions (including the ability to control and move our attention). However, some critics of these programs have found that although you might be able to demonstrate task-specific improvements (in other words, you improve your abilities at the specific task you are training on), there is little transfer to other real-life activities (e.g., Melby-Lervag & Hulme, 2013). This means that while you may get better at detecting little colored umbrellas falling against a colorful backdrop on a screen, you aren’t any less distracted during your next faculty meeting.
Recent research suggests that there may be an alternative method. We may be able to begin training our attention a lot earlier — in infancy! A recent study published in Current Biology found that training 11-month-old infants to maintain their gaze on certain objects on a screen while ignoring others resulted in rapid gains in their ability to focus and switch their attention. Furthermore, these gains in attention were transferred to other tasks. The children who had learned to train their attention on that single task showed overall improvements in concentration across a range of activities. By practicing staring at butterflies on a screen and ignoring other distracting patterns, infants were then able to detect small changes in toys more quickly than children who had not had this training. Although the researchers have not yet tested how long these gains last, the initial findings are provocative, particularly since differences in attentional control in infancy are associated with differences in later intelligence and academic outcomes (e.g., Bornstein, Hahn, & Wolk, 2012; Bornstein, 2014).
These results are exciting, but still very new. If you are a parent, please do not run out and buy cognitive training aids for your infants. Much like the Mozart effect, these results may not replicate or show lasting effects. However, keep an eye out for more research on this topic here at Brainscape.
As for us adults, the next time you catch yourself day-dreaming in a meeting, you can… wait, what was I saying?
Bornstein, M. H., Hahn, C-S., & D. Wolke (2012). Systems and cascades in cognitive development and academic achievement. Child development, 84(1), pp154 – 162.
Bornstein, M. H. (2014). Human Infancy… and the rest of the lifespan. Annual Review of Psychology, 65, pp121 – 158.
Cell Press (September 2, 2011). Infants trained to concentrate show added benefits. Science Daily. Downloaded from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/09/110901134635.htm
Goldstein, E. B. (2011). Cognitive Psychology, 3rd edition. Wadsworth: Cengage Learning.
Melby-Lervag, M. & Hulme, C. (2013). Is working memory training effective? A meta-analytic review. Developmental Psychology, 49(2), pp270 – 291.
Nauert, R. (January 22, 2013). Significant increase in ADHD over the last 9 years. Psych Central. Downloaded from http://psychcentral.com/news/2013/01/22/significant-increase-in-adhd-over-last-9-years/50668.html
Pomerantz, J. (2005). ADHD: More prevalent or better recognized. Medscape. Downloaded from http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/511173
Wass, S., Porayska-Pomsta, K. & M. H. Johnson (2011). Training attentional control in infancy. Current Biology.
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