Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


How our Brains keep us Focused

Scientists at the RIKEN Brain Science Institute (BSI) have uncovered mechanisms that help our brain to focus by efficiently routing only relevant information to perceptual brain regions.

Focus on what I am about to tell you! Our complex modern world is filled with so many distractions - flashing images on a television screen, blinking lights, blaring horns - that our ability to concentrate on one thing at a time is of critical importance. How does our brain achieve this ability to focus attention?

Figure 1 Efficient selection of sensory signals representing the target of focal attention can account for improved behavioral performance. A) When subject is trying to focus attention on one target (yellow highlighted stimulus in right panel) and ignore distractors (blue highlighted stimuli), neural responses were increased in occipital visual areas of the brain. B) When subjects distributed attention across four stimuli, signals from distracters (blue arrows) had the same magnitude as signals from the target (yellow arrow), causing both relevant and irrelevant information to be routed to perceptual areas of the brain and resulting in less discriminable neural response (more overlap between blue and yellow distributions).

The answer is believed to lie in two distinct processes, referred to as "sensitivity enhancement" and "efficient selection". Sensitivity enhancement corresponds to improvements in how neurons in the cortex represent sensory information like sounds and lights, similar to the volume control or reception control on a television set. Efficient selection is more like a filter, routing important sensory information to higher-order perceptual areas of the brain while suppressing disruptions from irrelevant information.

With their research in Neuron, Justin Gardner and colleagues at the RIKEN BSI set out to put these hypotheses to the test and determine which of them plays a dominant role in perception. To do so, they measured brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while human subjects either focused their attention on a single visual location, or distributed their attention across multiple locations. To evaluate results, they used computational models about how brain signals should change based on how well subjects were able to focus their attention.

What they found was that the computational model that best captured the brain activity in the human subjects was the one in which sensory signals were efficiently selected. The model also made a prediction about what kind of stimuli are particularly disruptive to our ability to focus, suggesting that signals which evoke high neural activity are preferentially passed on to perceptual areas of the brain: stimuli with high contrast that evoke large sensory responses, such as flashing lights or loud noises, can thus disrupt our ability to focus. While shedding light on the origins of perception, the results also hint at new ways of presenting information that capitalize on increasing neural activity to help our brains focus, promising applications in the development of critical information display technologies. The findings also offer insights into the causes of common attention-related disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

For more information, please contact

Justin L. Gardner
Gardner Research Unit
RIKEN Brain Science Institute
Tel: +81-(0)48-462-1111 / Fax: +81-(0)48 467-5379
Global Relations Office
Tel: +81-(0)48-462-1225 / Fax: +81-(0)48-463-3687
Franco Pestilli, Marisa Carrasco, David J. Heeger and Justin L. Gardner. "Attentional enhancement via selection and pooling of early sensory responses in human visual cortex." Neuron, 2011, DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2011.09.025


RIKEN is Japan's flagship research institute devoted to basic and applied research. Over 2500 papers by RIKEN researchers are published every year in reputable scientific and technical journals, covering topics ranging across a broad spectrum of disciplines including physics, chemistry, biology, medical science and engineering. RIKEN's advanced research environment and strong emphasis on interdisciplinary collaboration has earned itself an unparalleled reputation for scientific excellence in Japan and around the world.

About the RIKEN Brain Science Institute

The RIKEN Brain Science Institute (BSI) was established as an institute at RIKEN in October, 1997 to answer a growing need in society for cutting-edge brain science research. Since its establishment, BSI has attracted promising scientists domestically and internationally and brought together diverse research and human resources, and today enjoys an international reputation as an innovative center for brain science.

Research at BSI integrates a wide range of disciplines including medicine, biology, physics, technology, information science, mathematical science, and psychology. BSI's research objectives cover individual organisms, behavior, microscopic molecular structures of the brain, neurons, neurocircuits, cognition, memory, learning, language acquisition, and robotics.

gro-pr | Research asia research news
Further information:

More articles from Life Sciences:

nachricht First time-lapse footage of cell activity during limb regeneration
25.10.2016 | eLife

nachricht Phenotype at the push of a button
25.10.2016 | Institut für Pflanzenbiochemie

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Etching Microstructures with Lasers

Ultrafast lasers have introduced new possibilities in engraving ultrafine structures, and scientists are now also investigating how to use them to etch microstructures into thin glass. There are possible applications in analytics (lab on a chip) and especially in electronics and the consumer sector, where great interest has been shown.

This new method was born of a surprising phenomenon: irradiating glass in a particular way with an ultrafast laser has the effect of making the glass up to a...

Im Focus: Light-driven atomic rotations excite magnetic waves

Terahertz excitation of selected crystal vibrations leads to an effective magnetic field that drives coherent spin motion

Controlling functional properties by light is one of the grand goals in modern condensed matter physics and materials science. A new study now demonstrates how...

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

Ice shelf vibrations cause unusual waves in Antarctic atmosphere

25.10.2016 | Earth Sciences

Fluorescent holography: Upending the world of biological imaging

25.10.2016 | Power and Electrical Engineering

Etching Microstructures with Lasers

25.10.2016 | Process Engineering

More VideoLinks >>>