An Unified Theory.
In a Neuron special issue on “Cognitive Architecture,” researchers present integrated theories on how processes such as attention, body self-consciousness and language, function within the hardware of the human brain.
“Attention’s place in this architecture is to help us structure our internal world so that the thoughts, emotions, or motivations that are most relevant to our goals will get preferential processing through the brain,” explain Princeton University neuroscientists Timothy Buschman and Sabine Kastner in a review of attention research.
“Almost all high-order cognitive functions, such as memory, language, or decision making generally depend on “attentive state”; that is attention is a core cognitive ability without which other cognitive functions are quite impaired,” says Kastner. “Could the brain function without attention? Yes, it does in people with attention deficits, but this is a very difficult state to be in.”
With over 1,000 papers on “attention” in neuroscience published for each of the past 3 years, the authors attempt to integrate this ocean of findings into a single theory. In basic terms, they propose that attention is a cascade of effects beginning when a relevant stimulus (e.g., a flash of light, a bolded word) grabs the attention of the front of the brain. From there, neurons suppress competing stimuli so that there is increased focus on what’s relevant and decreased external “noise.” Once the need to focus is over, the brain resets so attention doesn’t get stuck on a single stimulus.
“By integrating these diverse findings into a single theory, our hope was to highlight commonalities between models and possibly, discover some unified mechanisms,” Buschman adds. “In general, I think unified theories have more power to make predictions. This not only reflects a deeper understanding of a subject but also allows for these predictions to be tested.”
Their review focused mainly on visual attention but noted that there are close and somewhat unexplored relationships between attention and being able to remember information, learn from reinforcement, and exert cognitive control. Future directions for research also include understanding how attention is able to shift so rapidly and the role that specific neurons play.