The allocation of attentional resources

The Dana Foundation Web site has a good summary of some of the most recent research into the underlying causes of attention challenges. The article outlines two we are familiar with: working memory and processing rates:

One theory holds that the disorder is primarily a problem with working memory–the ability to hold information in temporary storage long enough to act on it appropriately, while another group of theories centers around how information is processed in time.

“There are lots of psychological tests that show that ADHD kids just don’t get the timing of things quite right,” he says. “This would explain very nicely the impulsivity that is seen in ADHD; where they are not getting the very fine-grained timing of social interactions, for example.” In the classroom, this might manifest as blurting out the answer to a teacher’s query before one is called upon.

But the bulk of the article focuses on ADHD as a lack of allocation of attentional resources in the brain. From Philip Shaw, Ph. D., a scientist who studies ADHD at the National Institute of Mental Health:

“A child who is not staying on task in school could be paying attention to what’s going on outside the classroom. So it’s not that they are not doing something that is attention-demanding; it’s just that their focus is on something other than what they’re meant to be doing.” From that perspective, he says, thinking about ADHD as a problem with the allocation of attentional resources makes sense.

This may seem a logical explanation to parents and teachers. As the article points out:

Parents of children with ADHD, for example, may find it hard to fathom that a child who can spend hours engrossed in a video game has a problem with attention. Teachers may be confounded by a student who is fully engaged in a music lesson but is distracted or disruptive in other classwork.

The article continues with a description of the neural network of attention, with particular focus on the executive attention network, which “enables the individual to decide which things to attend to among competing brain activity.”

As the article points out in summary, “each of these theories offers tantalizing clues about what might be going wrong in the brains of children with ADHD, but they do not answer all of the questions.” And so the search continues…

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