Attention controls the selective processing of different stimuli that are perceived at the same time. Thus, you need attention especially when there is a lot of input at once. By modulating attention toward a particular stimulus, we can process that stimulus better and faster. This is also the reason why people cannot read and listen well at the same time; attention only allows one of these functions to be performed properly.
The question is how the brain makes it possible for us to focus our attention in a way that is convenient for processing information. However, there is a problem that makes the study of attention a lot more difficult: the different types of attention.
To begin with, there is location-focused attention. This type of attention focuses on sounds or visual stimuli from a particular direction. For example, this occurs when you are at the bus stop waiting for the bus. Because you know from which direction the bus is coming, you will notice this bus faster than a bus in the opposite direction.
In addition to location-focused attention, there is attribute-dependent attention. Here you are specifically focused on properties that stimuli may have. When you go out on the town with a friend, you cannot process all the conversations that are within your hearing range. Instead, you mainly process the words and phrases that are characterized by the properties of your friend’s voice, so that you can respond to them appropriately.
Apparently, therefore, neurons in the sensory areas of the brain can adjust their response based on attentional processes. However, it is more difficult to find out exactly which brain region controls this attention. One area that is often associated with this is the pulvinar nucleus, an area in the posterior part of the thalamus. This association is made primarily on the basis of anatomical findings. Specifically, the pulvinar nucleus has many connections to the occipital, temporal, and parietal lobes. Problems with attention have also been found in several people with damage to the pulvinar nucleus. Yet there are also studies that conclude that this area is not the crucial area in directing attention. However, these studies do not offer an alternative as to how people focus their attention.
Author: Myrthe Princen (translated by Melanie Smekal)