A deluge of visual information hits our eyes every second, yet we’re able to focus on the minuscule fraction that’s relevant to our goals. When we try to find our way through an unfamiliar area of town, for example, we manage to ignore the foliage, litter and strolling pedestrians, and focus our attention on the street signs.
Now, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have discovered that the brain’s control center syncs up to its visual center with high-frequency brain waves, directing attention to select features of the visual world.
“It’s been known that the prefrontal cortex plays an important role in focusing our attention, but the mystery was how,” said neuroscientist Robert Desimone, who led the study, published in Science Friday. “Now we have some insight into how it has that focusing role — through this synchrony with our sensory systems.”
This novel understanding of attention may inform future studies on disorders like schizophrenia and ADHD, in which patients are easily distracted and the prefrontal cortex is thought to be impaired. The region’s newly discovered role as a source of synchronized brain activity may be crucial to understanding these diseases.