Understanding Your Brain’s Attention System

Learn how stress, mood, and feeling threatened can affect your attention.

Hi, my name is Dr. Amishi Jha, and I’m the director of Contemplative Neuroscience for the Mindfulness Research and Practice Initiative, and associate professor of psychology at the University of Miami. 

I’m a neuroscientist, and what I’d love to share with you today is a little about the brain science of attention. In this series we’ll be exploring topics of attention and how they relate to mindfulness training—all useful tools for us to use in our own lives.

In my lab, which studies the brain basis of attention, we use a variety of brain-imaging techniques—functional MRI, brain-wave recordings and behavioral measures—to really test how attention works. And we’ve learned a great deal. 

I’d say, most prominently, we’ve learned that attention is an incredibly powerful system. In fact, attention developed because the brain encountered a very big problem: there’s far more information in the world than the brain could possibly ever fully analyze. So, to solve for this information overload, over the course of evolution, the solution became the brain’s attention system. 

Understanding Your Brain’s Attention System

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How Attention Functions Within the Brain

Attention allows us to notice and select a subset of information from all that is available so that we can more fully process that information. Our attention system is necessary for almost every single thing we do—whether it’s listening to my voice right now, focus on something you’re reading, communicate, learn or problem solve. And something that we may not consider often: attention is also important for the regulation of our own emotions. 

In terms of how attention functions within the brain: it actually biases our perceptions within a few hundred milliseconds (thousandths of a second). That is, the information we attend to gets preferential or privileged processing by the brain—and this all happens faster than the snap of our fingers. Given, then, that this biasing in the brain happens so soon after perception happens, it’s clear that where attention goes, or where it’s directed, is extremely important.

This biasing of information processing doesn’t stop at perception either. Our biases get applied to our information processing all the way along: from how we initially comprehend that information to the decisions we end up making about what actions to take in the world. Given this power to bias information processing, then, many people describe attention as the brain’s boss. Wherever it is that attention goes, the rest of the brain follows. What does this mean? Simply put: where you pay attention makes up the moments of your life. Consider the power of that: Where we place our attention actually makes up our life experience.

Decreasing Vulnerability

To explore this powerful brain function further in my lab at the University of Miami, we’ve been looking at when things go wrong with attention, examining what makes attention vulnerable. And we’ve come up with the top three things that affect attention the most: stress, poor mood, and threat. 

Now, if we could live lives without any of those factors, we’d have a different story to tell about attention. But, as we know, those are unavoidable realities in human life. So we allowed our curiosity to take us further and began exploring the ways in which we can strengthen attention and protect it against these very real factors. Because as we know, attention is not just something that’s good to have—it’s a critical part of everything we do. Since we depend on it so much, then, our aim here is to find ways to protect our attention from these factors that make it vulnerable. 

Most of us experience stress, poor mood, and threat in our day-to-day lives, so let’s explore over the next several sessions how we can navigate those better. Consider this, too: these are not just simple aspects of the ups and downs of life. They actually characterize the essential elements, the very essence, of our work and our lives in general—for example, a student navigating the pressures of an academic semester, a lawyer preparing for a trial, an accountant during tax season, even a salesperson managing the rapid ups and downs of a holiday season. Maybe you’re managing childcare or eldercare demands right now. We’re talking about periods of time in which demands continue over multiple weeks, and potentially months. These are demands that don’t let up. Under those conditions, we’re susceptible to becoming more vulnerable. Tuning up our attention so it’s in peak shape, then, becomes a real strategy for not just maneuvering through such times, but potentially even thriving within them. 

So that’s the bind we’re often caught in: the very life circumstances we experience that make us more vulnerable are also the circumstances in which we need this powerful brain system the most. 

Learning from Those on the Front Lines

Consider professionals for whom there are definable, known, cyclical challenges: first responders, medical and nursing professionals, military service members and their spouses. It’s these members of the population that we’ve taken a great interest in at my lab—to see if mindfulness training can be helpful to them. Can we train attention so that it’s stronger, more effective and really available for use during periods in which we really need to lean on it? 

Over the next few sessions we’ll get into the nitty-gritty of the brain’s attention system and how it’s divided up to allow us to manage all these complex functions. We’ll explore how, despite it’s power, this brain system is vulnerable to the stressors of our modern lives, and how we can better train it to be less vulnerable and even more dependable when we need it most. And that’s key here: understanding that our brain’s attention system is powerful, vulnerable and trainable. 

I really just want us to pay more attention to our attention. Through the course of a day, notice how you’re using your attention. How are you spending your moments? Where is your “attentional” energy going? Are you benefiting from where it’s being placed? And if not, let’s explore the ways we can retrain our mind so our attention serves us better. Thank you, and see you next time.

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About the author

Amishi Jha

Amishi Jha is a neuroscientist and Professor of Psychology at the University of Miami and author of a forthcoming book Peak Mind (2021, Harper One) on the science of attention. Her research focuses on the brain bases of attention, working memory, and mindfulness-based training. With grants from the US Department of Defense and several private foundations, her current projects investigate how to best promote resilience in high stress cohorts using contemplative/mind training techniques that strengthen the brain’s attention networks. She was selected as a Science and Public Leadership Fellow by PopTech, and serves on editorial review boards of Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Frontiers in Cognitive Science, and Frontiers in Psychology.