Annual Mind/Brain Lecture Explores Attention Processing

Cognitive neuroscientist Sabine Kastner delivered the 26th annual Swartz Foundation Mind/Brain Lecture, “Everyone knows what attention is …” providing an overview of the brain network and some of the mechanisms that support attention behaviors.

Kastner is a professor in the Department of Psychology and the Princeton Neuroscience Institute at Princeton University and was named as the 2023 recipient of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society’s George A. Miller Prize in Cognitive Neuroscience. She is known for her pioneering work on the neural basis of visual attention, her comparative studies in the human and monkey brain, and her groundbreaking studies on the role of the thalamus in perception and cognition. The lecture was held April 8 at the Staller Center for the Arts.

“Attention is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. Focalization, concentration, of consciousness are of its essence,” Kastner began, quoting William James, whose 1890 book Principles of Psychology includes insights that remain relevant and interesting.

When we select something using our attention system, Kastner explained, we select one thing of many that may be available to us at the same time, illustrating “the incredibly limited processing capacity of our brain.”

As an example, Kastner showed on the screen a sailboat scene, followed by the same scene with one different characteristic. The two scenes were rapidly displayed one after the other on the screen, and after 10 seconds most of the audience had not recognized the difference. This is representative of the limitations of the brain’s capacity to process multiple items at the same time.

Kastner’s research focuses on how the brain’s network produces a behavioral response within 250 to 300 milliseconds, and on the interactions of the sensory and cognitive modules of the brain. She used a metaphor of a spotlight focusing on different areas to explain that when we pay attention to something, certain parts of our brain become more active, allowing us to focus on specific stimuli and to ignore distractions.

Experiments measured brain activity during attention tasks and found rhythmic patterns, called “theta rhythms,” in both humans and monkeys. These rhythms seem to be linked to our ability to pay attention and to predict performance on tasks, and may help coordinate different brain networks involved in attention and other cognitive functions, making our brain’s processing more efficient.

Kastner ended the lecture with a call to action for scientists to contribute to an academic journal created for children, which she co-founded 10 years ago. Frontiers for Young Minds is an academic journal that features articles written by scientists and researchers and reviewed for clarity and readability by members of the target audience, children ages 8 to 15.

The finished articles are available free on the journal’s website, bringing the latest science to any student with access to the internet. The journal now receives over 1.5 million clicks per year, and has reached countries around the globe.

The Swartz Foundation was established in 1994 to explore the application of physics, mathematics, and computer engineering principles to neuroscience as a path to better understanding the brain/mind relationship.

— Beth Squire

Related posts

The latest On Social Media

Article Categories

Subscribe to SB Matters