Shifting Attention Causes Momentary Brain Freeze Interview with:

Alex Maier, PhD Assistant Professor of Psychology Assistant Professor of Ophthalmology and Visual Science Vanderbilt University

Dr. Maier

Alex Maier, PhD
Assistant Professor of Psychology
Assistant Professor of Ophthalmology and Visual Science
Vanderbilt University What is the background for this study? What are the main findings?

Response: We were interested in finding out about how the brain shifts attention from one location to another. We knew that when we attend a certain location, brain activity increases in a specific way. This increase in activity is how we perform better when we use attention. What we knew less about is what happens when attention moves between locations.

To our surprise, we found that there is a brief moment in between these attentional enhancements, while attention moves from one location to another, where the brain does the complete opposite and decreases its activity. Shifting attention thus has a brief negative effect on our brain’s ability to process information about the world around us. What should clinicians and patients take away from your report?

Response: There seems to be a real biological basis for the proverbial “cost” for paying attention, or more precisely, for changing attentional focus. This cost takes the form of brief moments of reduced brain responses to sensory stimuli while we are shifting our attention. The brain thus seems to internally “blink” for a moment, not processing the visual world as well as it normally does. Previous studies have found behavioral evidence that this is the case, but our study points towards the brain mechanism underlying this phenomenon. What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this study?

Response: There are several open questions that need to be answered.

Most pressingly, we would like to better understand why the brain is acting in this peculiar manner. Specifically, we are wondering whether what we observed is just an unfortunate by-product of normal brain function or instead intentional design. We know, for example, that each time we make a fast eye movement, the brain also transiently shuts down its processing of visual information. This prevents us from experiencing the rapid shift of the visual image that occurs as a result of eye movements, which would be very disorienting otherwise. Could it be that a similar pause in the processing of visual information is required when we shift attention? If so, why?

No conflicts of interest or disclosures to declare. Thank you for your contribution to the community.


Michele A Cox, Kacie Dougherty, Geoffrey K Adams, Eric A Reavis, Jacob A Westerberg, Brandon S Moore, David A Leopold, Alexander Maier. Spiking Suppression Precedes Cued Attentional Enhancement of Neural Responses in Primary Visual Cortex. Cerebral Cortex, 2017; 1 DOI: 10.1093/cercor/bhx305

Note: Content is Not intended as medical advice. Please consult your health care provider regarding your specific medical condition and questions.

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Last Updated on November 29, 2017 by Marie Benz MD FAAD