Busting Some of the Myths of Attention


by Nicky Penttila

May 7, 2010

Multitasking, ADHD, and optimal study times were among the topics as scientists and educators shared their expertise during the “Attention and Engagement in Learning” summit this week in Baltimore. The summit was held at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore on May 5 as part of the Neuro-Education Initiative at the Johns Hopkins School of Education.

In the morning, the half-dozen scientists explained what we know about attention, debunking some popular notions and suggesting possible solutions. In the afternoon, they joined the nearly 300 educators and advocates attending to try to synthesize what they’d learned and draw up potential new lines of research and ideas for classroom practice.

We’re not all the multitaskers we think we are

Attention is an act of perceptual or cognitive selection; from the myriad sensations and thoughts we experience at every moment, we filter a very few to which we consciously respond.

“Selection is unavoidable,” said Steven Yantis, an experimental psychologist at Hopkins. When we try to do two activities simultaneously, such as texting while driving or while listening to a teacher talk, we may be “multitasking” but our brains are rapidly switching back and forth among tasks, not simultaeously processing them.

“There is a cost in time and comprehension for task-switching,” Yantis said. “The time required to perform both tasks is longer than the time to do one, then the other.” Students will still learn their study material if they are chatting online, listening to music, or whatever—provided they devote the longer time it will take to do it.

Yantis also described a somewhat surprising result among people who do “heavy” media multitasking, such as simultaneously reading Web pages, watching television, and sending and receiving text  messages. These folks may think they are master multitakers, but they performed worse on a test of task-switching ability and appeared more susceptible to distractions than those who described themselves as low-multitaskers, in research described in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. [See also the briefing paper, “Brain Development in a Hyper-Tech World”]

ADHD not a problem of “deficit,” but allocation

The label “attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder” carries the assumption that whoever has it has some deficit—something lacking—in their processes of attention. But research is showing that this assumption doesn’t hold true, said Martha Bridge Denckla, a clinician and director of the developmental cognitive neurology department at the Kennedy Krieger Institute and a member of the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives.

“It’s not lack of capacity, but that it needs to be allocated elsewhere,” Denckla said. Many children diagnosed with ADHD can focus well on tasks that are interesting to them, but wander during a class, for example, distracted by other signals in the environment more interesting than the content of the lesson. “They can’t inhibit themselves from looking at or being attracted to something interesting, rather than the—let’s face it, sometimes boring—things we’re asking them to do.”

This form of inhibition, called effortful control or self-regulation, is a network of brain functions that develop at different speeds in different children. As the network wires up, such regulation becomes easier; until then, it takes a lot of mental effort. Some children with ADHD are slower to develop motor control than other children; it appears they are slower to develop effortful control as well.

“ADHD kids are using more brain power to sit still,” Denckla said; holding their movements in check while performing a school assignment is for them doubly difficult. “It’s seems an oxymoron to say hyperactive children are slow, but their brains aren’t working as fast.”

Attention as a “state,” not just a skill

We can improve self-regulation by training, said Michael Posner of the University of Oregon and a member of the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives who received a Dana Foundation grant for his work showing the effects of arts instruction on attention and cognition.

At the first neuroeducation summit in 2009, Posner described his work showing how children who underwent simple, interactive attention training improved on scores of attention and also on other more-general parts of intelligence.

This year, he described the potential of training in “attention states,” changing the way the brain organizes itself even when it’s not on-task. One such method change is meditation. Posner has done research with Yi-Yuan Tang comparing a method called integrative body-mind training (IBMT) with the effects of relaxation techniques commonly used as part of cognitive-behavioral therapy. They chose these two methods because both have been studied scientifically for years; other methods may work better or worse, he said, but don’t have the rigorous baseline studies to prove that.

In the study, a small group of US students went through 20-minute sessions of IBMT or of the relaxation technique for five days. During and after the training, the IBMT group showed better reactions in heart rate, breath speed, and other physical signs than did the relaxation group. They also showed stronger activity in brain areas connected with self-control, including the anterior cingulate cortex, which is a central control system in the brain. They were better at regulating their cognitive processes than the other group, Posner said, “but we expect both to be better than no training at all.” The IBMT participants reported that their mood seemed improved, as well.

This research was reported in early 2009, building on earlier research in China reported in 2007. “How they got into these states differed,” Posner said, with Chinese volunteers preferring group meditation and US volunteers going solo, but both groups saw the same improvements in cognition and emotional processes. Research has been done with four-year-olds, college students, and adults 55-65, showing the same results, Posner said.

“We don’t know that these methods will improve performance in school,” he cautioned, but he encouraged the teachers to follow the research as it progresses.

What are you calling a learning style?

“There’s not much to this notion of learning styles,” said Daniel Willingham, of the University of Virginia, and no evidence that categorizing children by such terms as “visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learners,” for example, helps them learn.

The notion that we can categorize people by how they prefer to learn has seeped into popular culture; 90 percent of the undergraduates in Willingham’s classes raise their hands when he asks them if they know what their learning style is. But research has not proved the categories are useful.

For example, in one study researchers divided children into “auditory learners" and “visual learners,” and then gave them an “auditory task” and a “visual task,” expecting the auditory learners to ace the first and the visual learners to ace the second. They got the opposite results.

“In many of these studies, the original classifications don’t always work,” he said; one person might be classified a “serialist learner” one day, but would meet the standard for its opposite, a “holistic learner,” the next. “The theories at hand aren’t effective,” Willingham said; perhaps another learning theory will appear that is, but he doesn’t see one on the horizon.

His talk had the tables buzzing; many teachers and administrators said they at least consider learning styles when they design curricula or make lesson plans. Willingham said relying solely on such a perspective might lead to less-effective teaching, but he does promote the idea of “changing-up,” using a range of different modes in the lesson.

He suggested matching the mode of delivery (teaching) not to the learner, but to the content. “Apply the idea of styles not to students—there’s no evidence for that—but to content, and what you want them to learn from the content.”

For example, when using the novel Tender is the Night as a text, teachers might use the visual approach of map reading to trace the characters’ journeys. They might have students listen to a recording of author F. Scott Fitzgerald reading the poem “Ode to a Nightingale,” from which he got the title for his novel. They might have students act out the social situations in the story, illustrating how socially skilled the character Dick Diver was.

Hold off on back-to-back study days

Another way of looking at attention and how well we retain information is to see how quickly we forget what we learn, said Hal Pashler of the University of California, San Diego. For example, one study suggests that medical students remember only 50-60 percent of what they learned in school the previous year.

Pashler is seeking ways to “mitigate forgetting.” One line of his research involves the “spacing effect” on learning; he’s found that how often and when students study affects how long and how well they retain information.

In one experiment, students studied a list of vocabulary words in Swahili. Some returned the next day for another session of study; others didn’t return for 2, 4, 7, or 14 days. Ten days after the second session (whenever it was), the students were tested. The students who scored best on the test were those who had had back-to-back sessions.

Then the researchers extended the spaces, with students returning for their second study session from one day to more than five months after the first, and with the test day six months after that second session. This time, the best scorers were not the one-day studiers, but those who had 28 days between first and second study sessions. “The effects are enormous,” Pashler said. “In the same amount of time [six months], they had three-four times the success rate.”

The researchers scaled the experiment up—to eight months between second study session and testing, and they invited volunteers to participate via the Internet. They got thousands of test subjects, he said, and saw the same results. More studies (using random facts and math puzzles) have confirmed this pattern: Spacing study sessions by about 10-20 percent of the time between last study and the test “will double or triple the chance you’ll remember” the facts or the processes you’ve studied, Pashler said. As a teacher, “if you want optimal retention, you need to know how long you want to learner to retain the information.”

Planting the seeds

After hearing from the scientists, the summit participants spent the afternoon in small groups wrestling with how what they’d learned might be applied in the classroom. Then they described for the larger group their findings and suggested possible research projects neuroscientists could perform to answer one or more of their questions.

Among their ideas: investigate how to use technology to create greater self-regulation in children, find ways to better distinguish learning from maturation, and try more studies with cross-over design (where the control group becomes the experimental group halfway through the study).

Their ideas are “the seeds of what will become translational research” in this new field, said the afternoon’s moderator, Charles Limb, a professor at Johns Hopkins Medicine and the neuro-education initiative’s director of research.

Hopkins plans to release videos of the event and produce a publication describing the day’s discussions. A report from the inaugural summit, “Neuroeducation: Learning, Arts, and the Brain: Findings and Challenges for Educators and Researchers from the 2009 Johns Hopkins University Summit,” is available in print and online.