How the brain helps us focus our attention


How can we shift from a state of inattentiveness to one of highest attention? The locus coeruleus, literally the “blue spot,” is a tiny cluster of cells at the base of the brain. As the main source of the neurotransmitter noradrenaline, it helps us control our attentional focus. Synthesizing evidence from animal and human studies, scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and the University of Southern California have now developed a novel framework describing the way the blue spot regulates our brain’s sensitivity to relevant information in situations requiring attention. Their findings have been published in an opinion article in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences.

Our attention fluctuates. Sometimes, we are distracted and things slip by our awareness, while at other times we can easily focus on what is important. Imagine you are walking home after a day at work; perhaps you are preparing the list of groceries to buy for dinner in your mind—you are in a state of inattentiveness. However, when a car you did not notice suddenly honks, you are readily able to redirect your attention and respond to this new situation. But how does the brain shift from a state of inattentiveness to one of focused attention?

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