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In cognitive neuroscience, attentional control refers to individuals' capacity to choose what they pay attention to and what they ignore. It is also known as endogenous attention or executive attention. In lay terms, attentional control can be described as an individual's ability to concentrate. Primarily mediated by the frontal areas of the brain including the anterior cingulate cortex, attentional control is thought to be closely related to other executive functions such as working memory.
Early researchers studying the development of the frontal cortex thought that it was functionally silent during the first year of life. Similarly, early research suggested that infants aged one year or younger are completely passive in the allocation of their attention, and have no capacity to choose what they pay attention to and what they ignore. This is shown, for example, in the phenomenon of 'sticky fixation', whereby infants are incapable of disengaging their attention from a particularly salient target. Other research has suggested, however, that even very young infants do have some capacity to exercise control over their allocation of attention, albeit in a much more limited sense.
As the frontal lobes mature, childrens' capacity to exercise attentional control increases, although attentional control abilities remain much poorer in children than they do in adults. Some children show impaired development of attentional control abilities, thought to arise from the relatively slower development of frontal areas of the brain, which sometimes results in a diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
Disrupted attentional control have been noted not just in the early development of conditions for which the core deficit is related to attention such as ADHD, but also in conditions such as autism and anxiety. Disrupted attentional control has also been reported in infants born preterm, as well as in infants with genetic disorders such as Down syndrome and Williams syndrome. Several groups have also reported impaired attentional control early in development in children from lower socioeconomic status families.
The patterns of disrupted attentional control relate to findings of disrupted performance on executive functions tasks such as working memory across a wide number of different disorder groups. The question of why the executive functions appear to be disrupted across so many different disorder groups remains, however, poorly understood.
Importance for learning
Modular approaches view cognitive development as a mosaic-like process, according to which cognitive faculties develop separately according to genetically predetermined maturational timetables. Prominent authors who take a modular approach to cognitive development include Jerry Fodor, Elizabeth Spelke and Steven Pinker. In contrast, other authors such as Annette Karmiloff-Smith, Mark Johnson and Linda Smith have instead advocated taking a more interactive or dynamical systems approaches to cognitive development. According to these approaches, which are known as neuroconstructivist approaches, cognitive systems interact over developmental time as certain cognitive faculties are required for the subsequent acquisition of other faculties in other areas.
Amongst authors who take neuroconstructivist approaches to development, particular importance has been attached to attentional control, since it is thought to be a domain-general process that may influence the subsequent acquisition of other skills in other areas. The ability to regulate and direct attention releases the child from the constraints of only responding to environmental events, and means they are able actively to guide their attention towards the information-rich areas key for learning. For example, a number of authors have looked at the relationship between an infants' capacity to exercise attentional control and their subsequent performance during language acquisition.
A number of research groups have recently suggested that attentional control and the related concepts of self control and effortful control may relate longitudinally to a number of long-term outcomes, such as future earnings, academic success and physical health. For example, a recently published study assessed 1,000 children from birth through to the age of 32 years, and found that self control assessed at an early age could predict a number of later outcomes including substance dependence, and criminal offending outcomes, even when factors such as socioeconomic status and family background were controlled for.
Delay of gratification
The famous marshmallow experiment measuring delay of gratification assesses childrens' ability to delay eating a marshmallow for a short period of time in exchange for receiving several marshmallows later on. Childrens' performance on this task was found to be predictive of a number of long-term academic and socio-economic outcomes later in life. The neural mechanisms underlying delay of gratification are thought to overlap with those underlying attentional control and self control - including the medial prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex.
- Delay of Gratification
- Executive functions
- Frontal Lobe
- Selective attention
- Self control
- Sustained attention
- Task switching
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