New evidence suggests that alternative ADHD treatments like meditation and sharpening working memory can improve attention and focus in both adults and children.
The ability to pay careful attention isn’t important only for students and air-traffic controllers. Researchers are finding that attention is crucial to a host of other, sometimes surprising, life skills: the ability to sort through conflicting evidence, to connect more deeply with other people, and even to develop a conscience.
But for all that, attention remains one of the most poorly understood human faculties. Neither a subject nor a skill, precisely, attention is often seen as a fixed, possibly inborn, faculty that cannot be taught. Now scientists are rapidly rewriting that notion. Fresh advances in neuro-imaging and genetics have powered decades of research, leading to a much clearer picture of attention. Many scientists have come to see attention as an organ system, like circulation or digestion, with its own anatomy, circuitry, and chemistry. Building upon this new understanding, researchers are discovering that skills of focus can be bolstered with practice in both children and adults, including those with attention-deficit disorders. In just five days of computer-based training, the brains of six-year-olds begin to act like those of adults on a crucial measure of attention, one study found. Another study suggested that boosting short-term memory seems to improve children’s ability to stay on task.
We do not yet know how long these gains last, or the best methods for developing attention. But the demand is clear: Dozens of schools nationwide are already incorporating some kind of attention training into their curricula. And as this new arena of research helps overturn long-standing assumptions about the malleability of this essential human faculty, it offers intriguing possibilities for a world of overload.
“If you have good attentional control, you can do more than just pay attention to someone speaking at a lecture, you can control your cognitive processes, control your emotions, better articulate your actions,” says Amir Raz, Ph.D., a cognitive neuroscientist at McGill University, who is a leading attention researcher. “You can enjoy and gain an edge in life.”
How We Pay Attention
Recently, scientists have used advances in genetics and imaging technologies to map brain activity to formulate more detailed theories of what, exactly, attention is. It has been compared to a filter, a mental spotlight, and a tool for allocating our cognitive resources. Increasingly, however, attention is viewed as a complex system comprising three networks, or types of attention: focus, awareness, and “executive” attention, which governs planning and higher-order decision-making. According to this model, first proposed by University of Oregon neuroscientist Michael I. Posner, Ph.D., the three attentional networks are independent, yet work closely together.
Armed with an improved sense of how attention works, Posner and others have begun researching whether attention can be trained. And their findings are intriguing. After years of research into how attention networks develop, Posner and colleague Mary K. Rothbart, Ph.D., began experimenting a few years ago with training children’s attention. They targeted children six and under, since executive attention develops rapidly between ages four and seven. Inspired by computer-learning work with monkeys, Posner and Rothbart created a five-day computer-based program to strengthen executive-attention skills, such as working memory, self-control, planning, and observation.
After the training, Posner and Rothbart reported that six-year-olds showed a pattern of activity in the anterior cingulate—a banana-shaped brain region that is ground zero for executive attention—similar to that of adults, along with slightly higher scores on IQ tests and a marked gain in executive attention. The children who were the most inattentive gained the most from the program. The results were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and have since been replicated in similar experiments by Spanish researchers. “We thought this was a long shot,” says Posner. “Now I’ve changed my mind.” Though small-scale, the results, from his lab and others, have been so remarkable that he and Rothbart are now calling on educators at conferences, and in their book, Educating the Human Brain, to consider teaching attention in preschool.
Improving Executive Attention
A parallel line of investigation is based on the close link between attention and memory. Working memory is the short-term cognitive storehouse that helps us recall a phone number or the image of a landscape; this type of memory is integral to executive attention. Tapping into this link, cognitive neuroscientist Torkel Klingberg, M.D., Ph.D., of Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, devised software to improve executive attention by training working memory in children and teens with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Using a training program he calls RoboMemo, Klingberg has helped children improve their working memory and complex reasoning skills, according to studies published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, among other publications. This appears to pay off in attention, as well: The children were also reported to be less impulsive and inattentive by their parents, although their teachers largely did not report such improvements.
A different line of research investigates the attention-boosting potential of something very different: the 2,500-year-old tradition of meditation. With a long history but little scientific data on its effects, meditation has begun to intrigue neuroscientists in labs around the country, who are measuring the success of meditative practices that boost focus and awareness.
Lidia Zylowska, M.D., assistant clinical professor in psychiatry at UCLA, co-founded the university’s Mindful Awareness Research Center, and is a pioneer in the study of meditation’s impact on human focus and attention.
In one study, Zylowska and colleagues reported that eight weeks of mindfulness meditation—a technique designed to improve attention and well-being largely by focusing on breathing—boosted powers of focus and self-control in 24 adults and eight teens with ADHD. The work was published in May in the Journal of Attention Disorders.
Focus in the Classroom
If focus skills can be groomed, as research has begun to hint, the important next question is whether, and how, attention should be integrated into education. Will attention become a 21st-century “discipline,” a skill taught by parents, educators, even employers? Already some educators are showing interest in attention training, mostly through the practice of meditation. Susan Kaiser Greenland, a former corporate lawyer who started the nonprofit InnerKids Foundation, in 2001, to teach meditation practices in schools, says demand outstrips her staffing. The Santa Monica–based firm works with children, ages four to 12. But with the field of attention training still in its infancy, scientists don’t know whether any current teaching brings long-lasting gains—or, for that matter, which practices work best. “Part of the problem in today’s society is that people are looking for extremely quick fixes. People are looking to lose 20 pounds before the wedding next week,” says Raz. “But attention training is a slow process.”
Nonetheless, with global use of ADHD medicines tripling since the early 1990s, and evidence mounting that attention can be strengthened, researchers are permitting themselves cautious excitement at the prospect that attention training could work. “Attention is such a basic skill that children need, and to be able to impact that skill, to teach them how to redirect their attention and how to become more aware of themselves, their bodies, emotions, and thoughts—it’s an exciting thing,” says Zylowska. “It’s also critical.”
Maggie Jackson (maggie-jackson.com) is the author of Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age (Prometheus Books). The full version of this article originally appeared in The Boston Globe.
This article comes from the Winter 2008 issue of ADDitude.