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?

MP: Well, the question of multi-tasking is a complicated one, because there are many grains or levels at which we could ask the question. In fact, we are pretty limited in what we can do at any one given time. But given time is usually thought of in psychological studies as in the millisecond range. However, we can shift from task to task, and of course we all do this during the course of a day. That can be pretty efficient—and in that sense we can multi-task, start on one task, and switch to something else, and come back again.

What the psychologist is usually saying when he says there’s a limit to attention is really to look at this millisecond range—what we’re doing at any one time. So if you’re listening to me intently, you’re going to miss things in the background. And you might feel that you’re aware of everything, but, in fact, psychological studies have shown that, really, vast changes can occur in the background. And provided they don’t produce the cues—the particular physical cues that lead to reorienting of attention—you’ll just miss them. So, at one level, we’re pretty severely limited; at another level, gross level of time, we are able to shift from task to task. Of course, this is something that depends a lot on our interest and on our training and so on.

RJ: In shifting from task to task at that level, does it take a certain amount of time to really get into the task where you can pay full attention to it?

MP: Yes, and that time is definitely measurable by psychological experiment. On the other hand, it isn’t like twenty minutes or so. It’s in, probably, millisecond-to-second range to shift from one task to another. In terms of the overall day, or what people are trying to talk about in terms of being able to do more than one thing at a time, in the gross lay sense, it isn’t really severe punishment, but it does cost. And these costs can be measured.

RJ: Is there any indication that young people, for instance, who were brought up instant-messaging while watching TV, are able to do this better than adults? And that, kind of, some of the issues people are bringing up about information overload and that sort of thing actually has to do with the amount of training?

MP: Uh, the question about whether young people, being raised in a more Web culture, are better able to do this than their older contemporaries not raised in that culture… as far as I know, that question hasn’t really been definitively answered. My guess would be that they’ll have made certain adaptations, or developed certain skills. Anyway, in older age, we lose some of these abilities, probably due to changes in the nervous system that come with age, so although I can’t really say that the definitive experiments have been done, it seems quite likely that people raised with access to all the information that’s available on the Web with the click of a button are maybe better able to take advantage of it than people who are always having to write things down, go to the library sometime later and so on.

RJ: So if there’s a finite amount that we can pay attention to at a given time, is it possible to overload the brain circuitry over a larger period of time? Throughout our day, the more things we’re exposed to, the more stimulus, that the less our ability is to pay attention?

MP: The question of whether we can overload and get fatigue… again I might have a little difficulty in pointing to the best studies that deal with this, but it seems almost certain that we can get fatigued from high mental effort during the day. And that is like any other kind of fatigue; it requires a certain amount of restoration. There are psychological theories to this effect—that restoration is required after intense mental effort—and that seems likely to be the case. But, again, I’m not certain we have the definitive answer to this question.

RJ: Is that the sort of thing where, if you were exposed to lots of flashing advertisements and signs, thatpotentially those could be forces that wear us down?

MP: This is probably less likely. It probably depends on how much you process this information. So I think that the key probably arises from exercise of the attentional networks, not just from exposure to flashing lights and so on. Because we’re pretty good at being able to, you know, tune out some of this. But, again, I don’t know… obviously, the more effective the ads are in getting in and getting some processing, the more they will probably take your sources and lead to a certain amount of fatigue.

RJ: Going back to the three aspects of attention—alerting, reacting, and executive—do we have an idea why our brains are this way? The evolution process or that sort of thing?

MP: So the evolution of these brain networks… two of them are extremely old; one of them, certainly the alerting network, goes back to the animal kingdom, and it has to do, of course, with the way in which the animals adapt to awaking and sleep and Circadian rhythms, the rhythms of the day and so on—these are ancient networks. Different animals have of course adapted in somewhat different ways. Why we change in alertness over the day, why we have a diurnal cycle and so on, I’m not really able to say.

There are quite a number of theories on why this is so, but it certainly is ubiquitous in the animal kingdom. The orienting network has been studied in all the way down to rodents and so on, and although there are certainly lots of differences that occur between rodents and monkeys, and then some differences between monkeys and humans, these networks have been preserved pretty well in evolution, probably because they work effectively. The executive network seems to have a very big change between primates and humans. There are cells available in the anterior singular in humans—and to a lesser degree in some great apes—that aren’t available in even other monkeys (non great ape monkeys). These cells provide greatly increased connectivity between the executive network and other parts of the brain, and that, I believe, underlies the human skill at self-regulation—although obviously we’re not as skillful as many of us would like to be, but in comparison to cats or other primates, we’re highly skilled at being able to bring a coherent focus of attention over relatively long periods of time, and this seems to be a late evolutionary adaptation, and probably is one of the things that make us human.

RJ: So it seems that some of these systems are ancient; some are, at least in evolutionary terms, pretty new. Where does that leave us in the 20th and 21st century, in the information society?

MP: Where does it leave us in the 21st century? Well, it’s hard to say. Definitely in a society in which there’s a lot of information available, and we should expect the human to continue to adapt to this, because although genetic adaptation is relatively slow and long term, many of the genes that we have that shape these networks are also influenced by our experiences—not the genes themselves, but their expression. And so we should expect exposure to the network—to increased information—to change the skills that people have. We can point to the advantages of those changes—perhaps in multitasking, that’s one that you discussed—and you can also point to disadvantages. People often use the term attention span, suggesting that we can’t sustain attention for long periods of time. I don’t know if there’s really any strong evidence for that, but there is a certain amount of plasticity in these networks, and that suggests that they’re adapting to circumstances that we’re in in this century.

RJ: Are there any specific genes or gene expressions that researchers are focusing on in this regard?

MP: Oh, yes. Well, we’ve worked on several genes that show influence. For example, style of parenting. For example, dopamine genes that interact with the style of parenting to shape aspects of the ability of people to, for example, their activity level and impulsivity and so on. So, yes, there’s increasing interest, particularly in dopamine and serotonin genes, in how their expression might be influenced by things that happen in the culture, or things that might be deliberately designed to improve performance by training.

RJ: To get back to one of the things you mentioned about attention span—do you see any trends in the media in changing attention span? Or do you think that’s just something that’s like a meme that maybe doesn’t have as much meaning as some people have—

MP: Well, the problem with “attention span” is that the psychologists mean something quite different than the lay definition. So the psychological definition is the number of items you can take in at a single glance. That is very limited, and probably hasn’t been changed. Now, I could be wrong about that; certainly the definitive studies haven’t and maybe can’t be done, because, of course, things are changing all the time, so if you study one cohort, you’d be studying a different group than another cohort.

But the layperson means, by “attention span”, “How long will I continue to work on a particular task?” And that’s much more difficult to know whether there’s been any change there. It could very well be… people usually say “Well, people won’t sit down and read War and Peace because they’re used to reading short.” And that may very well be true, but the adaptations that’ll allow us to read short pieces on the Web and to move back and forth between one source of information, one blog and so on, you know, if we choose to change those by settling down, turning off and working on something else… since plasticity is rare, we probably could change to a different style of processing information. But there are, of course, advantages and disadvantages to every style.

RJ: So, in your opinion, is there a concern for society? The kind of rapid changes in available information and kind of dissemination of news, information, from formation of knowledge?

MP: Well, the human is an adaptable person. Changing all the time. If we believe that we are or were kind of the best that we can be now or fifty years ago or a hundred years ago, then those changes will be seen as disadvantages. But of course we’re changing as the media industry changes. There is, of course, a lot of conservation. It isn’t that the human is a completely different organism. But there is adaptability, too, and there are changes, and they have advantages and disadvantages. Depends on what you like, I guess.

RJ: So I take it you’re—would you say on the balance optimistic as far as the technological changes and information?

MP: Well, yeah, I guess that would be said to be. At least, I don’t think that we’re in a dire situation, and that the media has dumbed us down to a huge degree or anything like that. I don’t see any real evidence. In fact, worldwide measures of intelligence, such as we can make them, have improved greatly over the last hundred years or so.

RJ: Are there trends—I don’t know if you’ve looked at them—but are there trends in media consumption and attention that you’ve seen change? Or maybe not even just attention, but the amount of information available, and how people—

MP: Yeah, this question I really can’t answer; that is, I haven’t done anything to look at the actual media changes. But, of course, in our daily life, we’re all familiar with things that we can do, like, you know, record telephone calls. If you wanted to have me visually present, you could do that now, which wouldn’t have been possible a few years ago and so on. So, yes, of course, we’re all familiar with some changes. But I haven’t really studied this at all.

RJ: OK. Do you have any ideas for the sort of things journalists or editors can learn from the study of cognitive science and attention, whether it’s packaging their information differently, or anything like that?

MP: Well, you know, media people seem fairly well knowledgeable about what’ll get orienting of attention. I notice that the ads now on the Web—you know, in the newspaper, it’s pretty easy to avoid the ads. But on the Web, now, if you click on the wrong place you suddenly have a moving, colorful display, which is, of course, totally unrelated to what you wanted to think about. And so it’s clear that a lot of what we know attracts attention has been exploited by advertisers. And, I assume that people who are writing journalistic pieces are studying, you know, memory aspects and what leads to sustaining interest in articles and so on and so on, like that. So, yes, I think everything we know in cognitive science gets kind of written for people who are, you know, producing media and they are presumably adapting things that will be of better usage.

RJ: And kind of continuing on that, as far as, you know, using principles learned from the study of cognitive science to design better applications for filtering information on the Web. Or, I’m thinking about what you were saying about advertisements and, you know, one of the big things with Google or other companies is that they can, ideally, match the advertisements to what the reader is interested in. You know, I’m reading an article about digital cameras, for instance, and then advertisements for that sort of thing pop up. Do you see this as potentially beneficial, or is this just kind of another way to sort of pull us off of news?

MP: Well, again, it could, you know, having ads that fit with the content of what you’re looking at, could be either way. But, you know, it’s going to be vastly annoying to think that the ads know exactly what I’m thinking about and they’re going to trying to be targeted this way. So, obviously it could be effective. I guess it could be useful in some way. It’s also going to probably be taking actions to try to prevent people from figuring out what we’re interested in.

RJ: I think that we’ve covered, actually, most of what I was looking for. I’m wondering, though, what …

MP: Well, I’m exhausted, I hope so.

RJ: One other thing I wanted to know, though, was what are the next steps for what people who study attention are going to be looking at, in terms of all that’s going on right now and what we’ve …

MP: Well, the agenda that I’ve talked about, that is the looking at neuro-networks and trying to get the physical base to understand how genes shape those networks, and how what, specifically, environmental influences do to change the efficiency of that network. That’s a big agenda which has just been, you know… I tried to give you some picture of our interests and what we’d like to be doing. But, we’ve just begun to understand even a little bit about this physical basis. And I think there will be vast consequences as we understand the physical basis of self-regulation. And this will have a lot to do with schooling, and with treatment of methodologies and, presumably, also ways in which media shaped information. There’s a tremendous amount – there’s some done, but mostly it’s undone.

This article is part of our online supplement to the November/December print issue of the Columbia Journalism Review. To read that issue’s cover story, entitled “Overload!: Journalism’s battle for relevance in an age of too much information”, click here.

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