How Our Brains React When Something Catches Our Attention: Yale Scientists Take A Look

Mar 12, 2018

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Scientists at Yale have given us the most detailed look yet at what happens to our brains during the crucial split-second moment we decide to pay attention to something. They said a wave of electricity engulfs our brains as we go from unconscious to aware.

So, for example, sometimes a face could enter your field of vision and you might not notice, but sometimes it catches your attention. “We’re being bombarded all the time with different sorts of events. Sometimes we are aware of things that happen around us,” said Hal Blumenfeld, a Yale neuroscientist. He wanted to pinpoint that moment of awareness.

They asked nine subjects to watch a short film and notice the faces. “We looked at brain activity for faces that appeared in people’s visual field. We asked people afterward whether they saw individual faces or not,” said Bluemnfield.

He and his team compared the brain activity in that very first second among people who noticed the faces. They saw this wide electrical wave sweep through our brains.“The wave is a sort of sequence of processing that happening in the brain, from simple basic elements of what the eye receives, to become more and more sophisticated signals that eventually form an image of a face,” he said. This all happens in less than a second as our brains switch off the feeds to lots of other visual signals that might compete with the wave.

Blumenfeld said this information could help us understand more about disorders like epilepsy and schizophrenia that relate to how our brains process information. But it could also help us with an even bigger question.

“Everyone wants to know what consciousness is. It’s what makes life meaningful that we have experiences, that we have things that happen to us that we can describe and remember afterwards. So understanding how that happens to the brain is one of the fundamental mysteries of the world, really.”

Blumenfeld said no matter how detailed a picture we can paint of the brain, he suspects there will always be more mysteries to be solved about consciousness.

This report comes from the New England News Collaborative, eight public media companies, including Rhode Island Public Radio, joining together to tell stories of a changing region with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.