Brain Waves, Scans and ATTENTION

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Part 2 in the Intentional Attending Series of Posts —
As I said in Part 1, The Link Between Attention and ACTION, before I can explain what you need to DO to be intentional with attention, I need to explain a little more about the relationship between memory and attention – and before I can do THAT, we need to come to an agreement about the meaning of this “Attention” term! 

Brain Waves and Vibrational Frequencies

by Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CTP, CMC, ACT, MCC, SCAC

Drawing of a screen of medical monitor showing the up-down lines that indicate the functioning of what they are monitoring

ALL changes in attention and focus produce a variety of specific patterns in the brain.  These patterns can be recorded using technologies developed and refined since the 1990s, the ten year period that was declared The Decade of The Brain

Whenever our state of awareness and concentration changes,
brain waves change vibrational frequenc

A neurofeedback practitioner, for example, can tell by looking at an EEG read-out whether a person hooked up to a special computer is asleep or awake, strongly focused or daydreaming.

The REST of this article will help you understand how measuring brain waves relates to attention and what’s involved in becoming INTENTIONAL with your ATTENDING.

Regulation Responsibilities

In addition, various areas of the brain seem to “regulate” certain tasks and not others. 

It’s almost as if areas of our brain turn on and off as we go about our day,
depending on what we’re doing.  I’ll give you an example.

Looking at Seeing:

For a person to see, the areas of the brain involved in vision work hard
to provide the neurotransmitters the brain uses to receive information
from the vision receptors in the eye.

They also provide neurotransmitters needed to communicate cell to cell
within the brain itself – the ones that make sense of the what the eyes “see.”

For the most part, sight-specific neurons stop working
(“turn off”) when the person closes his eyes.

Brain Scans as Sherlocking Tools

Phillip Martin, artist/educator

Phillip Martin, artist/educator

There are a number of tools that record brain activity, but for right now let’s focus on brain scans.

Older brain scans made static recordings, not unlike x-rays provide static snapshots of a broken bone.

  • Those older scans could detect brain tumors, brain bleeds, or the extent of physical brain damage if you were shot in the head, for example.
  • The picture would be the same, however, whether you were awake or asleep at the time your brain was scanned – or if you were asked to move your little finger or told to keep your entire body perfectly still during the process.

Newer machines take functional brain scans. 

  • Not only are functional brain scans able to differentiate between a sleeping brain and one that is alert and aware, they are also able to locate which neurons are active and which are not – during cognitive activity as well as bodily movement.
  • A person trained to interpret the results can see a difference in the brain patterns produced when you lie perfectly still, when you are moving, or when you are focusing intently on a task that requires mental concentration of a particular type.

As a field, we still don’t have a great deal of diagnostic data but, thanks to functional brain scans, we are learning more and more about how a “normal”brain – a  neurotypical brain –  does what it does.

We are also learning which areas are affected when a brain isn’t functioning “normally,” which helps us determine how to proceed to be able to retrain some brains to demonstrate “normal” neurological patterns of alertness and attention.


What IS Attention, anyway?

Webster’s Dictionary defines attention as “the pointing of the mind to either an item or an idea”.

William James, considered by many to be “the father of psychology” provided one of the earliest descriptions of attention in the late 1800s.

“Everyone knows what attention is. It 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.

It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state which in French is called distraction, and Zerstreutheit in German.”

James, W. (1890). The Principles of Psychology. New York: Henry Holt, Vol. 1, pp. 403-404. — format & emphasis mine

Not a Bad START

That’s a fairly concise explanation for James’ time, and many people would have no problem accepting that definition today.  However, science knows so much more now, his definition leaves out as much as it includes.

More to the point, thinking about attention in the fashion of James’ day, over a hundred years ago, leads us down a black and white trail that is neither accurate or helpful.

Dr. Catherine Mateer, a board certified clinical neuropsychologist known for her work in the rehabilitation of individuals with acquired disorders of attention, memory, and executive function, suggests a clinical model based on attentional rehabilitation, published with McKay Moore Sohlberg.

Clinical Hierarchy of Attention

The Sohlberg/Mateer model arranges five categories of attentional processes according to the order in which brain damaged patients recover functioning following a coma, based on a statistical compilation of demonstrated abilities as recovery advanced.

1.  Focused attention

The ability to respond to specific visual, auditory or tactile stimuli as independent events apart from the surrounding “stimulus soup” – recovered first.

2.  Sustained attention

The ability to avoid attentional lapses over a period of time, determined by the ability to maintain a consistent response during continuous activity and repetitive tasks.

3.  Selective attention

The ability to avoid distractions to maintain a specific behavioral or cognitive set in the face of competing stimuli.

4.  Alternating attention

The mental flexibility to shift focus between tasks having different cognitive requirements, accessing different sensory modalities and requiring different neurological response patterns.

5.  Divided attention

The ability to respond simultaneously to more than one task or a combination of task demands, when  rapid alternation of attention (or motoric “automation” of one of the tasks) is required – recovered last.

Effectiveness of an attention training program, 117-130. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology 9 (1987),
M.M. Sohlberg, & C.A. Mateer,

Close, but Not Quite a Cigar

The Sohlberg/Mateer model is a recovery model. Their model is a way of breaking down attentional processes that is useful in evaluating attentional response to brain-based rehabilitation programs like their APT  (attention process training) — or in evaluating neurological pathology or deficiency.

While extremely useful as background, I have found those five categories are confusing to many individuals who are attempting to design systems to increase attentional effectiveness or to overcome attentional deficits in the absence of brain damage. 

A three-part explanation

Robert Sylwester, Ed.D., Professor Emeritus at the University of Oregon, offers another explanation of attention.  Sylwester notes that our neurological attentional system is composed primarily of three important functional categories:

1.  an orienting system
2.  an executive system, and
3.  a vigilance system.

The orienting system, as Sylwester refers to it, is that part of the cognitive mechanism that allows us to shift focus from stimulus to stimulus.

The executive system, in Sylwester’s explanation, is that part of our neurological wiring “that recognizes the challenge and searches for the relevant resources needed to meet it.”

The vigilance system he refers to includes the parts of the brain that allow us to ignore irrelevant stimuli while we “attend” to current challenges.

“A major distraction,” Sylwester points out, “will activate the orienting system,
which will shift to the new focus, and begin the process anew.”

He goes on to say that“One shouldn’t expect such a complex key cognitive system
to continuously function without problems, or expect that a simple solution will solve all problems.”

So What Goes Wrong?

Sylwester’s list of items that frequently disable attempts at functioning with intentionality, momentarily or permanently, can be ordered into four main categories:

1.    Inappropriate attentional prioritization

“Folks can over-respond to minor challenges or ignore major ones.”

2.    Inappropriate balance as the result of emotional valence

“Folks can be so concerned about what might happen that they ignore what is happening,”
– or –
“Folks can become disabled by events that trigger powerful emotional memories.”

3.    Lack of neurological ability to respond appropriately to incoming information

“Folks can have difficulty attending to rapidly moving high contrast information.”

4.    Impaired neurological ability to respond effectively to incoming information

“Folks can be easily distracted.”
“Folks can’t focus for an extended period on a single important task.”
“Folks can’t disengage from a problem and so obsess over it. “

Our Working Brain, Working Memory – Part 1; 11/2002 <

A Coaching Model of Attention

One of the goals of ADD Coaching is to identify areas where our clients can improve on the intentional direction of attentive awareness.

Click HERE  for the next article of this series, where I expand the model of attention I use — invaluable for anyone intent on becoming intentional with attending.

The above text is excerpted from Intentional Attending,™
 the fourth of the twelve eBooks in the upcoming
Optimal Functioning eBook Series™
2000, 2006, 2011 Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, ALL rights reserved


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About Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, MCC, SCAC
Award-winning ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching field co-founder; [life] Coaching pioneer -- Neurodiversity Advocate, Coach, Mentor & Poster Girl -- Multi-Certified -- 25 years working with EFD [Executive Functioning disorders] and struggles in hundreds of people from all walks of life. I developed and delivered the world's first ADD-specific coach training curriculum: multi-year, brain-based, and ICF Certification tracked. In addition to my expertise in ADD/EF Systems Development Coaching, I am known for training and mentoring globally well-informed ADD Coach LEADERS with the vision to innovate, many of the most visible, knowledgeable and successful ADD Coaches in the field today (several of whom now deliver highly visible ADD coach trainings themselves). For almost a decade, I personally sponsored and facilitated seven monthly, virtual and global, no-charge support and information groups The ADD Hours™ - including The ADD Expert Speakers Series, hosting well-known ADD Professionals who were generous with their information and expertise, joining me in my belief that "It takes a village to educate a world." I am committed to being a thorn in the side of ADD-ignorance in service of changing the way neurodiversity is thought about and treated - seeing "a world that works for everyone" in my lifetime. Get in touch when you're ready to have a life that works BECAUSE of who you are, building on strengths to step off that frustrating treadmill "when 'wanting to' just doesn't get it DONE!"

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