The Attentive Brain: What To Do When The Mind Wanders

William James, brother of novelist Henry James and the “father of American psychology,” wrote much on the science and art of teaching. Teaching, as James describes, is dependent on the mentor-disciple encounter. It’s an interaction between two minds: one that is well-trained and another on its way to being so. However, both minds at any moment during this interaction are undergoing what James first termed “the stream of consciousness,” a perpetually flowing stream of sensations, emotions, feelings, and thoughts. Consequently, the duty of the best teachers should be to provide the student with the means to harness this stream and delve into it without distraction, a method called “attending.” According to James’ magnum opus, “The Principles of Psychology,” an education that helps the mind of a student voluntarily bring back a wandering attention, over and over again, would be the education par excellence.


James wrote over a hundred years ago. A lot has happened since then in the fields of cognitive neuroscience, behavioral analysis, and educational theory, a myriad of disciplines that sprung from his own pursuits. So how on the mark was he? Do we still believe the best type of education is one that improves a student’s ability to attend to a particular subject at a particular time? Have there been any findings in neuroscience that either support or weaken the importance attention has within the brain while learning? Is there a direct relationship between how much a student learns and how much they are paying attention? If so, are educators neurologically justified for expecting their students to “Pay attention!” within the classroom setting? Finally, does James’ “education par excellence” truly exist? In order to understand why attention may or may not play an important role in how we learn we must first investigate why attention is in the brain in the first place.

The ability for the brain to attend as a survival mechanism might have evolved from the need to detect salient changes within a threatening environment. This hardwired attention orients us to move (i.e., dodge attacks), detect fluctuations of sounds (i.e., the snap of a branch in a quiet forest), and allows us to take sudden risks dependent upon whether our current conditions are safe. However, due to the fact that our brains are also plastic (i.e., have the ability to change in accordance with our environment) we can also attain a type of learned attention. This learned attention can be seen in a high school student who is focusing on her exam while her classmates laugh in the hallway outside the classroom.

The brain of this student must first orient itself toward the goal by attending to what is directly present (the exam) and simultaneously block out salient information (laughter in the hallway) that may distract them from achieving the goal. If another student in the classroom taking the same exam looks up to see who is making all the noise, this student is thought to be easily distracted. But here is where the danger lies. Being described by a teacher as “easily distracted” seems to entail that you do not possess attentive skills.

In fact, this is totally wrong. The student is simply expressing a hardwired ability to attend to the most salient information within his environment. The teacher may make the case that this easily distracted student lacks the learned attention skills that allow him to stay on task. Yelling “Pay attention!” is not likely to be effective in this case. Instead, the teacher must know how to guide the student toward attending to particular stimuli at a particular time without commanding them to do so, and the student will benefit from retaining more information regarding that stimuli.


Studies have shown that when we pay attention to a task at hand, our brains are able to ignore internal and external distractors and inhibit competing responses to various situations so we may accomplish our goal — finishing that novel while riding the bus, for example. Neuroscientists have found two approaches when investigating the relationship between learning and attention: one is to analyze how the brain filters out an enormous amount of sensory input and the other is to see how mental disorders such as ADHD or ADD affect learning. Each neuron in the brain receives thousands of inputs along its dendrites, yet only one output message is sent down along its axon to the rest of the brain. How does a neuron attend to one stimulus among the various others it receives?

Scientists believe this is determined by the timing of input signals and how the signals are correlated in structure. Dr. Robert Desimone, director of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, theorizes that our brains may be listening for synchrony during received inputs. An attention study performed at the institute with monkeys showed that when the primates directed their attention toward a particular stimulus, their synchronous neural activity increased to around 50 to 60 hertz, the fundamental frequency of the attentive brain. Desimone also found that when neurons which were coding for distractive stimuli were observed within the primate’s brain, they completed their tasks much slower, offering insight on the harm that may arise due to ADHD, when various stimuli all compete for attention from the neurons.


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