Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, March 11, 2024

Turning the focus knob

I am really distractible.

To say I have "squirrel brain" is a deep injustice to squirrels.  At least squirrels have the focus to accomplish their purpose every day, which is to make sure our bird feeders are constantly empty.  If I was a squirrel, I'd probably clamber my way up the post and past the inaccurately-named "squirrel baffle" and finally get to the feeder, and then just sit there with a puzzled look, thinking, "Why am I up here, again?"

My "Oh, look, something shiny" approach to life has at least a few upsides.  I tend to make weird connections between things really fast, which long-time readers of Skeptophilia probably know all too well.  If someone mentions something -- say, an upcoming visit to England -- in about 3.8 milliseconds my brain goes, England > Cornwall > Tintagel > King Arthur > Monty Python > the "bring out yer dead" scene > the Black Death > mass burials > a weird study I read a while back about how nettle plants need high calcium and phosphorus soils, so they're often found where skeletons have decomposed, and I'll say, cheerfully, "Did you know that nettles are edible?  You can cook 'em like spinach," and it makes complete sense to me even though everyone else in the room is giving me a look like this:

Talking to me is like the conversational equivalent of riding the Tilt-O-Whirl.

Which, now that I come to think of it, is not really an upside after all.

A more significant downside, though, is that my inability to focus makes it really hard in noisy or chaotic environments.  When I'm in a crowded restaurant or bar, I can pay attention for a while to what the people I'm with are saying, but there comes a moment -- and it usually does happen quite suddenly -- when my brain just goes, "Nope.  Done," and the entire thing turns into a wall of white noise in which I'm unable to pick out a single word.  

All of the above perhaps explains why I don't have much of a social life.

However, as a study last week in Nature Human Behavior shows, coordinating all the inputs and outputs the brain has to manage is an exceedingly complex task, and one a lot of us find daunting.  And, most encouragingly, that capacity for focus is not related to intelligence.  "When people talk about the limitations of the mind, they often put it in terms of, 'humans just don't have the mental capacity' or 'humans lack computing power,'" said Harrison Ritz, of Brown University, who led the study, in an interview with Science Daily.  "[Our] findings support a different perspective on why we're not focused all the time.  It's not that our brains are too simple, but instead that our brains are really complicated, and it's the coordination that's hard."

The researchers ran volunteers through a battery of cognitive tests while hooked up to fMRI machines, to observe what parts of their brain were involved in mental coordination and filtering.  In one of them, they had to estimate the percentage of purple dots in a swirling maelstrom of mixed purple and green dots -- a task that makes me anxious just thinking about it.  The researchers found two parts of the brain, the intraparietal sulcus and the anterior cingulate cortex, that seemed to be involved in the task, but each was functioning in different ways.

"You can think about the intraparietal sulcus as having two knobs on a radio dial: one that adjusts focusing and one that adjusts filtering," Ritz said.  "In our study, the anterior cingulate cortex tracks what's going on with the dots.  When the anterior cingulate cortex recognizes that, for instance, motion is making the task more difficult, it directs the intraparietal sulcus to adjust the filtering knob in order to reduce the sensitivity to motion.

"In the scenario where the purple and green dots are almost at 50/50, it might also direct the intraparietal sulcus to adjust the focusing knob in order to increase the sensitivity to color.  Now the relevant brain regions are less sensitive to motion and more sensitive to the appropriate color, so the participant is better able to make the correct selection."

The applications to understanding disorders like ADHD are obvious, although of course identifying the parts of the brain that are responsible is only the beginning.  The question then becomes, "But what do you do about it?", and the truth is that current treatments for ADHD are a crapshoot at best.  Even so, it'd have been nice if this understanding had come sooner -- it might have saved me from being told by my third grade teacher, unkindly if accurately, "You have the attention span of a gnat."

I apparently haven't changed much, because recalling this comment made me go, gnats > a scene in one of Carlos Castaneda's books where the main character was high on mushrooms and hallucinated a giant man-eating gnat > edible mushrooms, which my wife hates > food preferences > licorice, another thing a lot of people hate > a study I read about using licorice extract to treat psoriasis.

Hey, did you know that the word psoriasis comes from the Greek word ψώρα, meaning "itch"?  I bet you didn't know that.


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