How your brain learns by paying attention

January 18, 2017 11:00 am
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Researchers at Princeton University explored the relationship between attention and learning during decision making in a study using eye tracking and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). 

The findings of Leong and colleagues could contribute to the world of education and help educators better understand how we make efficient work of our environment when trying to take in new information. People can’t perceive everything; attention is the prioritized processing of some information from a wide range of items. The ability to make these selections allows us flexibility and control in learning. We pick out what’s important, and ignore what it isn’t. 

Participants in the Princeton study were asked to engage in a multidimensional trial and error learning task involving rewards allocated to one dimension for each trial. The participants’ brains were scanned using fMRI during the task to observe changes in activity of attention networks. It appeared that selective attention constrained the participant’s learning to what was relevant for the task and shaped what they learned when they encountered an unexpected reward outcome. Even more, what they learned drove their focus of attention. What can be seen is an efficient feedback relationship between attention and learning. 

This study is a good demonstration of “endogenous” attention, which is our ability to intentionally attend to something in our environment. The attention choices that students make in the classroom directly affect their learning. The researchers at Princeton showed that students may not learn what they should, but instead they’ll learn what they pay attention to most. According to the feedback loop of attention and learning, they will pay attention to what they learned was high in value to them. In a classroom where there is so much to absorb, teachers must be wary of the fact that they may not be the only thing worth paying attention to.

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This post was written by McKenzie Cline