Jun 28, 2017 | Updated: 09:10 PM EDT

Research Into What Happens to Your Brain When You Pay Attention May Help Computers Read People's Minds

Jun 13, 2017 04:41 PM EDT

Tamara Gordon leads her 8th graders
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Hey you! Yeah you, staring into space when you are supposed to be working. Your brain is supposed to be filtering the information that distracts you and helping you focus on what is important. That is easier said than done.

Scientists are not sure why your brain is having a hard time deciding what is important for you to focus on, but we are working on it. Now, go back to browsing for cute cat videos. 

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Scientists are discovering that the brain acts differently when you are paying attention. The secrets of how it filters out the distractions and homes in on the information you are supposed to be focusing on may hold the keys to how we can help people with ADHD, read the thoughts of coma patients and speak for someone who is unable to talk because of a stroke. 

According to research, the brain pays attention in two ways; overt attention and covert attention. Overt attention is attention being paid to what your eyes are focused on. Covert attention is attention being paid to something that your eyes are not necessarily focused on. It is your brain that decides when and how these types of attention are applied.

During some tasks the brain is actually engaged in both types of attention. One example, put forth by Mehdi Ordikhani-Seyedlar is when we drive a car. The eyes are focused on the road during this activity, which takes overt attention. Your eyes tell you when to slow down or speed up or when to exit or whether that cop has his radar gun on you. While this type of attention is being handled by the brain, covert attention is also engaged. Covert attention while driving would be the scanning of the road for surprises that may jump out at us. Examples would be a kid on a bike easing into an intersection or deer on the side of the highway. We notice these things, but we are not necessarily looking at them with our eyes. If the deer was smoking a cigarette, chances are the driver would notice the deer, but miss the cigarette. The eyes are not following the deer, thus it is an example of covert attention. 

"The filtering ability of the brain in indeed the key for attention, which is missing in some people. For example in people with ADHD. A person with ADHD cannot inhibit these distractions. That is why they cannot focus for a long time on a single task" say's Ordhikhani-Seyedlar.

Scientists hope to use research on how the brain filters information to develop computer games to help people with ADHD train their own brains to help them filter these distractions. 

If scientists can identify how the brain tells us what to pay attention to, we may be able to find brain wave patterns when people think about different images. With this type of research and development we can develop programs within computers to engage in communicating the thoughts of coma patients, helping people with ADHD and further develop artificial intelligence.  

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