Paying attention is a task many of us take for granted, except perhaps when we’re daydreaming or otherwise distracted. Rarely do we stop to consider the elaborate neurocognitive processes involved in paying attention. Just for a moment, think about all the things that are stimulating your senses as you read this sentence – background noises, the aroma of food, distractions in your peripheral vision, thoughts of other things you need to do.
To efficiently process the huge amount of information it takes in, the brain must impose several control measures. It must first prioritize different types of stimuli, a process that controls not only what information gets ignored or recognized but also how much concentration is given to any one piece of information. When possible, the brain also connects new pieces of information to prior knowledge, thereby aiding in the understanding of new information as well as broader concepts. Finally, no matter how quickly it processes information, the brain must also help us focus our attention on important information for an appropriate amount of time. This becomes more difficult when we are faced with subjects that aren’t inherently interesting to us.
In addition to processing relevant information, we must also be able to respond to the information in a productive and organized way. A student must be able to respond in an appropriate manner to a teacher’s instruction. Often, an appropriate response involves considering the possible consequences of a number of different actions — perhaps requiring that the student not respond immediately and instead appropriately organize, plan, and pace his or her work. Effective production also requires that students monitor their own work while performing or completing a task, thereby allowing them to revise their level of attention as necessary.
Given the processes and mental effort involved in paying attention, it’s not surprising that, at times, we all find ourselves unable either to prioritize the sensory information coming at us from all directions or to respond to it appropriately. This does not necessarily mean, however, that we suffer from an attention disorder — or that such disorders don’t exist.
The question of whether disorders like Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) exist is a controversial one. Until recently, there was no consensus about the validity of the diagnosis in large part because researchers had not found evidence of a biological cause. The issue is further complicated by the fact that the criteria used by doctors to diagnose the disorder are not uncommon to any of us; they include failing to pay attention to details, struggling to organize thoughts and tasks, and having difficulty waiting patiently in line.
One viewpoint, held by a minority of medical and psychiatric professionals, notes that there is no fundamental difference between people who struggle regularly with attention problems and those who are easily able to focus when needed. These experts argue that scientific research has failed to uncover a legitimate biological cause for the behaviors that, according to the American Psychiatric Association, constitute ADHD.
Most experts accept that ADHD is a disorder caused by a structural and/or chemical abnormality in the brain, and they note the statistically significant differences between individuals with ADHD and individuals without ADHD. According to many ADHD researchers, the presence of a biological cause is increasingly supported by brain research. For example, neuroscientists have identified parts of the brain that they say are smaller and less active in people with ADHD than in individuals with no chronic attention problems.
Unfortunately, there is still much that remains unknown. Although researchers have identified what they say are “neural signatures” of attention disorders and have found that ADHD tends to run in families, they have not yet linked attention problems to any specific genetic mutations or environmental factors.