Monday, June 11, 2007

Paying Attention vs. Needing to Pay Attention

Here's a interesting paper that distinguishes the brain pathways that involve attending to a task vs. salience detection. Executive control of attention is a volitional direction of attention, whereas salience detection is more reactive or "passive".

It's helpful to think about these different pathways necessary for attention because the weaker executives at various stages of their schooling may bewilder their parents by fluctuating grades depending on the teacher and subjects. But differences in the salience of educational stimuli may be responsible for some of the pattern. If the subject interests them, if they find the teacher engaging or clever, or if it seems important for what they want to do or they think is important, then the executive pathways may fire up.

The figure above reminded me of a Radiology professor I had in medical school. Dr. Ross had his "hot seat" - where he would call up some student at random, have them sit in a chair at the front of the class, and identify all the important features of a never-before-seen film. There was dread, terror, anxiety, but also definitely attention when you were sitting in that hot seat. Fortunately, he was delightful and kind teacher, and that softened the blows for the most ignorant.

There really is a considerable art to teaching. Wouldn't it be nice we thought of salience as often as attention when our students are struggling to attend to school tasks?

Different Networks for Attention and Salience in the Brain pdf

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