Monday, May 20, 2013

Attentional control (Posner, 2007 review): Executive attention may be trainable

A recent Annual Review of Psychology had a nice overview article (by Posner and here to view) dealing with research on the cognitive construct of attention. I found Figure 2 and Table 1 (above) particularly informative. Below are some key quotes from the article. Given my prior reading and posts regarding the importance of executive attention, I was particularly interested in Posner and Rothbart's suggestion that executive attention may be a domain general learning mechanism that may be trainable. The italics and/or underlining below were added by this blogmaster.
  • In recent years, attention has been one of the fastest growing of all fields within cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience.
  • Certainly many, perhaps even most, imaging studies have been concerned with anatomical issues. As Figure 2 illustrates, several functions of attention have been shown to involve specific anatomical areas that carry out important functions.
  • Imaging data have supported the presence of three networks related to different aspects of attention (Fan et al. 2005). These networks carry out the functions of alerting, orienting, and executive attention (Posner & Fan 2007). A summary of the anatomy and chemical modulators involved in the three networks is shown in Table 1. Alerting is defined as achieving and maintaining a state of high sensitivity to incoming stimuli; orienting is the selection of information from sensory input; and executive attention involves mechanisms for monitoring and resolving conflict among thoughts, feelings, and responses.
  • ..we have argued that the executive attention network is involved in self-regulation of positive and negative affect as well as a wide variety of cognitive tasks underlying intelligence (Duncan et al. 2000). This idea suggests an important role for attention in moderating the activity of sensory, cognitive, and emotional systems.
  • There is considerable evidence that the executive attention network is of great importance in the acquisition of school subjects such as literacy (McCandliss et al. 2003) and in a wide variety of other subjects that draw upon general intelligence (Duncan et al.2000).
  • It has been widely believed by psychologists that training involves only specific domains, and that more general training of the mind, for example, by formal disciplines like mathematics or Latin, does not generalize beyond the specific domain trained (Thorndike 1903, Simon 1969). However, attention may be an exception to this idea. Attention involves specific brain mechanisms, as we have seen, but its function is to influence the operation of other brain networks (Posner & Rothbart 2007). Anatomically, the network involving resolution of conflict overlaps with brain areas related to general intelligence (Duncan et al. 2000). Training of attention either explicitly or implicitly is sometimes a part of the school curriculum (Posner&Rothbart 2007), but additional studies are needed to determine exactly how and when attention training can best be accomplished and its long-lasting importance.
  • Executive attention represents a neurodevelopmental process in children and adolescents, the alteration which could affect the propensity for the development of a number of disorders.

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