The next segment of the information processing model that we’re going to tackle is attention. Problems with attention really short circuit the model because without attention, nothing makes it way from sensory memory to short-term memory, and remember from the overview that short-term memory is where all sorts of problem solving and learning occurs. When attention is compromised, learning and memory suffer.
Before we delve too deeply into attention, it’s important to talk about different ways that attention is used to get information from sensory memory to short-term memory. I often think of there being at least two ways that this happens. The first way that information gets from sensory memory to short-term memory is because our sensory memory has forced us to pay attention to something in particular. For example, you’re about to a great big refreshing gulp of milk and as you get the glass to your lips, the smell of nearly spoiled milk hits your nose, and suddenly your sensory memory has forced your attention to sour smell of the milk and now your short-term memory is making a split second decision about whether it’s too spoiled to drink. You might take a moment now to recognize when you’re drinking fresh milk, you probably don’t even notice the smell because your sensory memory filters it out because it’s not important.
Alternatively, you can selectively focus your attention on anything you want. You can certainly choose to attend to the state of the milk. Perhaps you’re someone who always opens the milk and gives it a good whiff before you pour a glass. That quick smell was performed by your selective attention. Leaving nothing to chance, you overrode your sensory memory. When we sit down to read a novel or a text book, we’re engaging our selective attention to focus on the page, the words, and their meaning. When our selective attention fades or shifts away from the book, we’re no longer attending to the words—though sometimes we continue to read them without paying attention to their meaning. A number of mental health interventions rely on selective attention. Anyone who has ever done a mindfulness exercise has be using his selective attention to focus on something in particular like his breathing.
So this all sounds simple enough. Attention is the bridge between sensory memory and short-term memory. The problem is that attention is easily disrupted. Frequently when someone suffers from attention problems, people around them start to think maybe they have attention deficit disorder (ADD or ADHD). It’s a natural enough conclusion to draw when someone struggles with attention. But the problem is that ADHD is only one of a whole host of things that disrupt attention. Anxiety, depression, PTSD, and bipolar disorder can disrupt attention, but it’s not limited to mental health disorders. Diabetes and blood sugar levels can interfere with attention, as well as poor sleep, chronic pain, TBI and post-concussive syndrome, Lyme disease, Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, over or underactive thyroid, and more. This is not even to mention side effects from some common medications, as well as sensory input issues that we discussed in previous posts—auditory processing issues or visual acuity deficits will definitely undermine attention.
This is all ultimately by saying that if there’s a problem with attention, we really need to dig deep and a take a good long look to carefully figure out what’s disrupting attention. What’s keeping things from getting into short-term memory? If we don’t figure out the root cause of the attention problems, we aren’t likely to select the most appropriate treatment or intervention. This one of the reasons why the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a thorough evaluation when children present with attention problems. The full evaluation that is offered at Brainsight fulfills the AAP guidelines when ADHD is suspected.
Next time we’ll pick up with short-term memory, which is chalk full of information and may need to be broken down into a two sections.