Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern


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NU Researchers Describe How Human Brain Focuses

By Shana Sager The Daily Northwestern

You’re more likely to remember things you focus on, and NU researchers think they know why.

According to a new study, paying attention causes neurons in the brain to fire synchronously instead of individually. When neurons work together, objects you focus on seem more salient.

Yee Joon Kim, Weinberg graduate student and primary author of the study, compared paying attention to conducting an orchestra.

“The individual players are just playing their own tune, but once the conductor stands in front of the orchestra members, they start playing together,” Kim said. “Each individual player in this case is a neuron in the brain.”

To test this hypothesis, researchers monitored the brain waves of eight volunteers wearing electrode-laden caps connected to an electroencephalograph, or EEG, machine.

Participants watching two flickering bull’s-eyes were told to focus on one pattern and ignore the other. The resulting EEG signal showed a brain wave that pulsed at the same rate as the flickering image. This told researchers which image the participant was focusing on.

“This technique gives us a handle on what someone is paying attention to without asking them to tell us,” psychology Prof. Marcia Grabowecky said. “It is a direct measure of brain activity that tells us whether someone is paying attention or not.”

According to psychology Prof. Satoru Suzuki, attention not only synchronizes neurons, but also makes them function more precisely.

“Attention seems to coordinate this whole bunch of neurons so they more precisely follow the changes in the environment,” Suzuki said.

This means that what you choose to pay attention to influences the way you see the world.

Previously, studies measuring how neurons work together to enhance perception had been performed only with monkeys, Suzuki said. NU researchers wanted to investigate how a conscious choice to focus on certain stimuli influences the physiology of the brain.

Now that the relationship is understood, researchers said the findings might be able to help people with attention deficit problems. Suzuki said if patients with ADHD had the ability to synchronize the neurons in their brain, feedback training on their brain activity could teach them to do so. Whether that ability is impaired in ADHD patients is unknown.

The findings also can be used to create new technology, Grabowecky said.

“Our world is getting really complicated,” he said. “We are inundated with information, and a basic understanding of how it is we pay attention will help us to manage our own lives.”

As our lives get more complex, she added, we have more choices to make regarding what we pay attention to. “As we understand how we see things,” he said, “we can figure out how we can develop technology that can work with people.”

Reach Shana Sager at [email protected].

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NU Researchers Describe How Human Brain Focuses