Different Brain Networks for Novelty-Induced vs. Voluntary Attention

This may come as no great surprise to parents or teachers, but still the implications are significant for the classroom: different brain networks exist for attention depending on whether it is novelty-induced or voluntary. So it should come as no great surprise that a child with strong attention for novelty things or ideas (perplexing puzzle, a strange objects, etc.), may still be seen to thoroughly struggle when trying hard to direct his or her attention (voluntary control). A novel stimulus captures attention passively (whether you want it to or not)while other brain pathways are responsible for attention under voluntary control.

It's those voluntary attention networks that are also more likely to take time to develop in children (including high IQ kids).

If we really appreciate this neurobiological difference, then - the question is... are we doing all we can to help teachers and parents "capture" the attention of novelty-based learners? Talented teachers (and parents) often know how to excite learning and curiosity using a variety of means (invoking wonder / awe - about beautiful things, mysteries / the unknown, puzzles, also funny stories, and the unexpected...), but they may have never been taught...it might have been they were novelty-learners themselves as kids.

As neurobiology increasingly supports the idea of novelty learning and novelty-based attention, however, may be we should think more about the educational expectations. We spend so much time trying to strengthen or speed up the development of voluntary attention, but perhaps we should spend as much time improving our capture of the attention that's already there -

Dissociable intrinsic networks for salience vs. executive control pdf
Eide Neurolearning Blog: Blessings and Burdens of High IQ

We talk more about novelty and attention issues such as this on the DVD of Day 3 of our Webinar: Attention, Sensory Processing, and Social Challenges of Gifted Children


  1. Yet another fabulous insight that bolsters for change in the way our schools teach. I always forward your blogs to our son's kindergarten teacher. While he is in general ed, he has an IEP. He tests very high on some areas of the IQ test, but has serious attention issues when it comes to tasks that hold no interest for him. His special ed teacher last year had a novel way of making school "fun" so our son never exhibited attention problems until this year. Now they're saying ADD, but we're not so convinced. I'd love to read more on this subject. Thanks!

  2. Bonnie, What did his special ed teacher do to make school fun?

    I think this is an interesting confirmation of a generally understood phenomenon. The question is can this be engineered into a educational/instructional program that can produce longitudinal improvements. A lot of things result in a short term boost but then fade back into normality. Could a extra focus on Novelty delay the development of voluntary attention? or might it improve it?

  3. parents and educators.. a great book is "Teaching with the Brain in Mind", by Jensen. fairly basic but loaded with info that could prove helpful.
    goodness in- goodness out

  4. Robert, his special ed teacher was very animated and enthusiastic. He was always talking about how "fun" the next activity would be, and he would get the children amped up by asking them what they were looking forward to about it. He would also use public praise at circle time to encourage the kids to participate. Social skills was a big part of the curriculum, while in general ed it's basically absent. Because it was part of the special ed curriculum, it can be used as a reinforcer.

    He would also remind them of rules as he taught. For example, if a child's attention was wandering, he would say, "Tom, pay attention so you will know what to answer when I call on you." Currently the teacher just says, "Eyes on me, Tom. Please pay attention." Although it's a subtle difference, the special ed teacher was continuously reinforcing the "rules". For our son this is vital as he has auditory processing issues, so he needs repetition to learn.

    Finally, kinesthetic learning was key. Since our son has auditory issues (which weren't discovered until this year -- thanks to me reading The Mislabeled Child), the lecture format of general ed is a huge challenge for him. In special ed visual prompts were ALWAYS used to assist the children. My dream is for both my sons to be in a Waldorf school. I believe that model of learning is ideal.

  5. Thanks for this additional detail, Bonnie!

    Does sound like a wonderful and charismatic teacher.

    As a group, I've wondered whether there are significant gender differences regarding novelty learning. Watching commercials on traditional "womens" vs. "mens" programming, for instance can't help but notice quite a difference... lots more humor and oddball material on the guys commercials...wonder if it is a coincidence your son's special ed teacher was male?

  6. Drs. Eide, it's interesting you comment on the humor and oddball material. Just today I got another assessment for Gabriel (we're in the process of trying to obtain more services). This was from a speech/language pathologist who commented a lot on our son's inattention. He has significant auditory attention/memory issues, but on the sentence absurdities test he came up average. The examiner noted that attention was not an issue with this test, and she thought it was because it was silly and fun.