How the Brain Manages Focus and AttentionFocusing too intently on something can blind you to other, potentially better solutions. A recent study investigated how the brain switches focus to incorporate new information from the environment. Researchers at Princeton University, Humboldt University in Berlin, and other institutions observed brain activity of people playing a game and adjusting their focus. They found that the medial prefrontal cortex is responsible for monitoring what is happening outside of a person’s main focus. The results could help researchers better understand disorders that have symptoms related to attention.

For the study, volunteers played a game while the researchers observed their brain activity using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The volunteers responded to colored squares on a screen by pressing one of two buttons. The researchers asked the volunteers to press the buttons when certain squares were on screen, but the researchers did not tell the volunteers that there was a pattern that would improve their performance in the game.

Some of the players identified the pattern and shifted to a more efficient gameplay strategy, but others did not. The researchers noticed that there was a specific brain pattern present among volunteers who noticed the pattern and adjusted their strategy. There were brain signals in the medial prefrontal cortex that responded to the colored squares on the screen. The brain patterns of someone recognizing the more efficient game strategy were so consistent that the researchers could predict a spontaneous strategy shift minutes in advance.

“These findings are important to better understand the role of the medial prefrontal cortex in the cascade of processes leading to the final behavior change … Our findings suggest that the medial prefrontal cortex is ‘simulating’ in the background an alternative strategy, while the overt behavior is still shaped by the old strategy,” explained Carlo Reverberi, senior study author and researcher at the University of Milan-Biocca.

The study advances understanding of attention by identifying the part of the brain that balances the need to maintain attention and the need to incorporate new information from the environment.

This research is published in the journal Neuron.

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