Brain Study May Shed Light on Attention Disorders

New research shows it takes one part of the brain to start concentrating and another to be distracted.

This discovery could help scientists develop better treatments for attention deficit disorder .

The study, Top-down versus bottom-up control of attention in the prefrontal and posterior parietal cortices, performed at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and published in of the journal Science, reveals that attention may have two forms: willful and reflexive. While this information is not new – cognitive psychologists have written about this for many years – the study finds that these two types of attention are controlled by distinct areas of the brain. Willful attention seems to be controlled by the frontal region of the brain in the prefrontal cortex while reflexive attention seems to be activated by the parietal cortex toward the back of the brain.

Put simply, if one is reading a book, then likely the prefrontal cortex is engaged in commanding attention like the conductor of an orchestra. If, while reading, a firecracker explodes nearby, your reflexive attention will activate from the parietal cortex command center shifting control away from the prefrontal cortex.

“This ability to willfully focus your attention is physically separate in the brain from distracting things grabbing your attention,” said Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Now we know these two things are separate, it raises the possibility that we can fix them independently,” Miller said.


MIT’s research sheds a little more light on the subject of attention because until now researchers have examined only one region at a time. Studying both regions allows us to examine their collaborative interactions, functions, and purposes.

Miller used EEG electrodes connected to the heads of monkeys to examine the complex interplay between the prefrontal cortex and parietal regions during tests of attention and bursts of reflexive attention.

When the monkeys voluntarily concentrated, the so-called executive center in the front of the brain – the prefrontal cortex – was in charge. But when something distracting grabbed the monkeys’ attention, that signal originated in the parietal cortex, toward the back of the brain.


Miller concluded that once the prefrontal and parietal regions signaled each other (see my blogs on neural networks), the electrical activity in these two areas began vibrating in synchrony. However, as EEG specialists have known for quite some time, willful concentration involved lower-frequency neuron activity. Distraction occurred at higher frequencies. This again lends credence to EEG training to produce better attention.

While the study sheds a little more light on the subject of concentration, it examined only two portions of the brain. I contend that the entire brain is involved in concentration. The brain seems to work as an orchestra works. While the conductor is not in command, the players tune and rehearse each of their own will. When the conductor steps to the stage, taps his baton, all the individual players each snap to attention and begin to play in synchrony. It is a metaphor for brain function – our brains are formed of many different parts that perform jobs independently of each other. When necessary, a conductor taps his baton and attention is achieved as the individual parts work in synchrony.

For a person with an attention problem or AD/HD, the conductor is not controllable at-will unless the object of attention is highly stimulating like a three ring circus. A little attention may be sustained if the object of attention is only moderately stimulating, but the other conductor responsible for reflexive attention quickly takes command and distraction ensues.

ADHD persons don’t have at-will command over either conductor responsible for willful attention or reflexive attention. Do we know why this is so? No, it may be caused by a variety of factors. Can they be taught to control these conductors? Absolutely. The brain is very flexible and can compensate. All educational systems are built upon this foundation. So, let’s take this out of the realm of medical mystery and dysfunction. Let’s place it back in the realm where it is a skill that can be improved like any other.

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