Are you paying attention? Are you sure?

brain cells paying attentionAs you’re well aware, the brain is a phenomenally complex organ, and its very complexity means that we don’t yet fully understand it. In fact, as someone once wryly noted, if it were simple enough to understand, we’d be too simple to understand it! Furthermore, the vast number of processes that are continually running in the brain means that it takes an enormous amount of energy to keep it running nonstop. In fact, the brain uses more energy than any other organ in the body.

Regardless of the difficulties of understanding something so complex, researchers still valiantly attempt to push back the boundaries of our knowledge of the brain, through endless research and experiment.

One such venture into uncovering the brain’s secrets concerns how the brain uses energy efficiently (since it consumes so much), and seeks to explain why some parts of the brain seem to be put into an inactive state from time to time.

Researchers have taken a close look at monkeys’ brains to see how they cope when they are focused on a particular task. They fitted a probe to the monkeys’ heads in order to detect electrical changes (indicating brain activity) while they were presented with a challenge.

Attention!

First the monkeys were trained to pay attention to a cue that indicated something in a particular part of their visual field was about to change, if only slightly. If they responded to the change, they were given a treat, which ensured their co-operation.

The probe confirmed that when the monkeys were on the lookout for the visual cue, the brain cells responsible for paying attention to visual information were in an active state.

However, when the monkeys weren’t trained to look out for the visual cue, the areas of the brain that should have been on the lookout were less likely to notice the change, as though they were, in effect, taking a nap.

TatianaEngel

Dr. Tatiana Engel of Stanford University

Dr. Tatiana Engel of Stanford University, one of the authors of the research, which was published in the journal Science, said the finding could explain why we sometimes miss something obvious when we’re actually trying to pay full attention.

It seems that parts of the brain not directly concerned with what we’re focusing on are sometimes switched off, or put into an inactive state, rather like hibernation.

And in this it seems the brain operates somewhat like a computer; as you know from experience, if you have several programs or applications running simultaneously, the moment you switch from the one you’re focusing on to another you’ll notice the program not previously being focused on slowly coming to full awareness, or in effect, ‘waking up’. It makes perfect sense to save energy and processing power by putting parts of the computer into an inactive state when they’re not being actively used. Seems the brain does exactly the same thing!

To stay fully alert or to rest … mm, big decision!

If our brains were constantly on the alert, we would obviously be better at responding to potentially threatening situations. But the huge metabolic cost of constantly running our brains at full capacity has to be taken into account. It probably makes a lot more sense to allow parts of the brain to rest while other parts are very busy.

Researchers are looking into why parts of the brain ‘go to sleep’ from time to time, but it seems it’s nothing more than a common sense solution to an age-old problem – conserving energy while staying alert … er, mostly alert anyway.

 

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