Cognitive neuroscientist Michael Posner is an internationally recognized expert on attentional networks and cognition. CJR contributor Russ Juskalian recently talked to Posner about attention, cognition, and how media consumption affects both. This is a full transcript of their discussion.

Michael Posner: I’m Michael Posner, I’m a professor emeritus at the University of Oregon, where I’ve been since 1965. My main interest is the study of attention networks in human beings, and particularly their development. We’ve been interested in recent years in how genes and experience shape the development of these networks.

Russ Juskalian: OK, so we’re talking about attention and media consumption and kind of the rise of the Web and other technologies. But I was wondering if you can give us an overview of what attention actually is.

MP: Let me first say something about what attention actually is. I’d like to talk about the physical basis of attention. And neuroimaging particularly has given us a chance to look at the areas of the brain that are active when we attend in different ways. And we’ve revealed three important networks that carry out different functions of attention.

One of them involves maintaining—achieving and maintaining the alert state, and particularly this involves norepinephrine system, arising in the locus coeruleus and activating centers in the frontal and parietal lobes. Another network involves orienting the sensory events. Because this network is very common between human beings and other animal organisms, it has probably been the most widely studied of all the brain networks underlying attention. It involves areas of the parietal lobe and frontal cortex, and seems to be particularly affected by the, uh, neuromodulator acetylcholine. And finally there’s an executive network.

We’ve called it the executive network because it interacts with many other brain networks in regulating their activity, particularly in adjudicating conflicts, because neuroimaging has shown many parts of the brain active during tasks, and one has to have a method of producing coherent behavior in the presence of, uh, widespread activation. This network involves frontal structures such as the anterior singulate and lateral prefrontal cortex, as well as the basal ganglia, and we’ve seen this network as being crucial to what, in childhood, is called self-regulation—that is, the ability to control emotions and to deal with conflicts and neuroactivity, leading to, perhaps, different behaviors. In adults, sometimes we call this a network involved in self-control or voluntary will. It’s obviously the one that poses the largest influence on various distractions, because, of course, in adjudicating conflicts between the different brain networks it’s influenced by widespread activity in networks that might be active due to sensory stimulation or other factors.

RJ: So, for someone who’s maybe reading news on the Web or watching television: Do all three of these come into play in terms of attention?

MP: Yes, of course, these networks interact in most real life tasks. They’re all probably involved. I mean, when we’re dealing with information—let’s say visual information—coming over the Web, we have to move our eyes from position to position to take in the detailed information. This involves orienting, and we all know that, sometimes, depending on what the information is, the alert state wanes and we space out and miss information. And, of course, because the Web produces a lot of information, including deliberately conflicting information—that is, ads, for example, that pop up and move around and are in color and so on, designed to attract attention, to attract orienting—we have to, of course, try to maintain some kind of central control that allows us to maintain focus and attention despite all these distractions.

RJ: So is attention a finite thing? Or is it kind of fungible in how we can train ourselves to pay attention?

MP: Well, it’s certainly finite—it’s a physical system, so it has to be finite. But it is a system that is susceptible to developmental processes and to training. In recent years, a number of different training exercises have been developed to improve, particularly, executive network, but also orienting network. And, of course, we know there are pharmaceutical interventions we all use, like coffee, and things to control the alerting network. So, yes, they’re definitely finite networks, but they’re susceptible to all sorts of environmental influences, both in improvement and in boost efficiency.

RJ: So what about multi-tasking? Is it something that you see as a misnomer? People can’t really do multiple tasks at once? Or is it something that some people just haven’t learned how to do?

Russ Juskalian is a contributor to The Observatory and a freelance writer.