Neuro Science    






Have you ever wondered how we manage to focus on a single conversation in a noisy room, or how we can drive a car while simultaneously navigating traffic and listening to the radio? This remarkable ability is rooted in the complex cognitive process known as attention. It involves sophisticated coordination among various brain regions and networks, allowing us to selectively process crucial aspects of our environment. In this article, we will delve into the neural mechanisms of attention, exploring how different parts of the brain contribute to this vital function. We will also examine the role of neurotransmitters in shaping our focus and discuss the implications of attentional disorders on daily life and potential therapeutic strategies.

What is Attention ?

Attention is a complex cognitive process that involves the selective processing of information and the allocation of limited neural resources. It allows us to prioritize relevant information from the environment and filter out irrelevant stimuli.

Attention is not a single, unified phenomenon but a collection of different mechanisms that work together to control our perception, thoughts, and actions. These mechanisms can be broadly classified into:

  • Alerting: This is the basic level of arousal and vigilance that prepares the brain to receive and process information. It involves the activation of specific brain regions, such as the brainstem and the thalamus, and the release of neurotransmitters like norepinephrine.
  • Orienting: This involves directing attention to a specific location or sensory modality (e.g., visual, auditory). It involves the activation of parietal and frontal brain areas and is associated with the movement of the eyes and head towards the object of interest.
  • Executive control: This is the highest level of attention and involves the selection, prioritization, and coordination of competing information and tasks. It is associated with the activity of the prefrontal cortex and is crucial for goal-directed behavior, working memory, and decision-making.

What is Attention Network ?

The "Attention Network" refers to the interconnected group of brain regions that work together to process and manage attention. This network enables us to detect, focus on, and respond to various stimuli in our environment. There are three primary networks identified in the study of attention, each serving distinct but complementary functions:

  • The Alerting Network: This network is involved in achieving and maintaining a state of high sensitivity to incoming stimuli. It primes the brain to be ready to receive and process information. The alerting network is primarily associated with brain regions like the locus coeruleus and frontal and parietal areas, which play roles in maintaining vigilance and readiness.
  • The Orienting Network: This network manages the allocation of attentional resources by selecting specific sensory information from numerous stimuli. It involves the directed focus toward particular objects or locations in the environment, such as turning attention towards a sound or a visual cue. Key areas involved include the superior parietal lobe, the frontal eye fields, and parts of the thalamus, which help in orienting attention spatially and in filtering sensory input.
  • The Executive Control Network: This network is crucial for managing complex cognitive functions that involve planning, problem-solving, and decision-making. It is particularly important in situations where there is conflict between multiple responses or distractions. The executive control network involves areas such as the anterior cingulate cortex and lateral prefrontal cortex, which are critical for monitoring and resolving conflicts among thoughts, feelings, and responses.

Together, these networks allow for a dynamic and flexible attention system that can adapt to changing demands and environments, supporting everything from routine tasks to complex problem-solving activities.

Image Source : Atypical attentional networks and the emergence of autism

The image shown above is a diagram illustrating the cortical and subcortical regions of the human brain involved in the three primary attentional networks: alerting, orienting, and executive control. These networks are represented by different colors on the brain model:

  • Alerting Network (Green): This network is depicted in green and includes regions such as the right lateralized ventral frontoparietal cortical areas, the temporal-parietal junction (TPJ), dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), the insula/ventral frontal cortex (INS/VFC), as well as subcortical structures like the thalamus and locus coeruleus (LC).
  • Orienting Network (Red): Shown in red, this network encompasses bilateral dorsal frontoparietal areas, which include the superior parietal lobe/intraparietal sulci (SPL/IPS), frontal eye fields (FEF), and extends to subcortical areas like the superior colliculus (SC) and parts of the cerebellum.
  • Executive Control Network (Blue): Represented in blue, this network involves the rostral brain locations, including the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and anterior cingulate gyrus/supplementary motor area (ACC/SMA).


  • TPJ - Temporal-Parietal Junction
  • DLPFC - Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex
  • PFC - Prefrontal Cortex
  • INS/VFC - Insula/Ventral Frontal Cortex
  • ACC/SMA - Anterior Cingulate Cortex/Supplementary Motor Area
  • FEF - Frontal Eye Fields
  • SPL/IPS - Superior Parietal Lobule/Intraparietal Sulcus
  • SC - Superior Colliculus
  • LC - Locus Coeruleus

How Attention varies ?

Attention is a dynamic and adaptable cognitive function that varies significantly based on a myriad of factors. From the complexity of tasks at hand to emotional states, and from environmental stimuli to individual motivation levels, the way we focus and process information is influenced by both internal and external elements. In this article, we'll explore how attention shifts and adapts in different scenarios, highlighting the roles played by the brain's attention networks—alerting, orienting, and executive control. Understanding these variations not only sheds light on the fundamental workings of the human mind but also offers insights into managing and improving our attentional capabilities in various aspects of daily life.

Does Attention varies depending on the situation ?

Yes, attention can vary significantly depending on the situation. Different contexts and environments can influence how we allocate our attentional resources, and several factors play into these variations:

  • Task Demands: Attention changes based on the complexity and requirements of the task at hand. For example, complex tasks that require careful thought and decision-making can demand more focused and sustained attention, whereas simpler tasks might only require periodic attention.
  • Interest and Motivation: Our interest level and motivation towards a particular activity or task can greatly influence how much attention we dedicate to it. When we are highly interested or motivated, we are more likely to engage deeply and maintain focus.
  • Emotional State: Our emotional condition can also affect attention. For instance, when we are anxious or stressed, our ability to concentrate can be compromised as the mind might be distracted by worrisome thoughts. Conversely, positive emotions can enhance attentiveness by making tasks seem more appealing.
  • Environmental Factors: External stimuli such as noise, lighting, and activity level in the surroundings can impact how well we can focus. A noisy or chaotic environment may reduce our ability to concentrate compared to a quiet and controlled setting.
  • Fatigue and Physical Well-being: Physical health and energy levels can affect cognitive functions. Fatigue can impair attention, making it difficult to stay focused, while good physical health can enhance cognitive performance.
  • Age and Developmental Factors: Attentional capabilities and strategies evolve over a person’s lifespan. Children, for instance, may have shorter attention spans and might be more easily distracted than adults. Age-related cognitive decline can also affect how attention is managed.

These variations in attention highlight its adaptive nature, allowing individuals to respond to different circumstances effectively. Attention shifts and adapts to optimize our performance in various settings, illustrating its critical role in helping us navigate our daily lives and environments.

How these variation is related to the activity of Attention Network ?

The variations in attention in response to different situations are closely linked to the specific activities and interactions among the three primary attention networks—alerting, orienting, and executive control. Each network adjusts its function based on the demands of the environment or the task at hand:

    Alerting Network:

    • Situational Variations: The alerting network is responsible for maintaining an overall state of alertness and readiness to respond. In situations requiring quick reactions, such as driving in heavy traffic, this network increases its activity to keep the brain vigilant.
    • Environmental Influences: In a noisy or disruptive environment, the alerting network works harder to maintain focus, trying to filter out irrelevant stimuli and keep the mind attentive to the task.

    Orienting Network:

    • Task Demands: The orienting network is crucial when the task requires selective attention to specific locations or stimuli, such as when searching for a friend in a crowded place. It enables the shifting of attention to relevant stimuli while ignoring others.
    • Interest and Motivation: This network is also influenced by personal interest or the importance of the stimuli. For example, a musician might be more attuned to orienting attention towards different sounds and instruments during a concert.

    Executive Control Network:

    • Complexity and Conflict: This network is particularly active in complex situations that require planning, decision-making, or problem-solving, such as during exams or strategic games. It helps manage conflicting information and distractions, making it essential for maintaining focus on competing tasks.
    • Emotional and Physical State: Stress, fatigue, or emotional distress can impact the executive control network's ability to function effectively. This network helps regulate emotional responses and can be strained under emotional turmoil, reducing its ability to manage cognitive tasks.

Together, these networks interact dynamically to modulate attention based on the specific demands and conditions of the environment. They are interconnected, meaning that a change in the activity of one network can influence the others. For example, a heightened alert state can enhance the orienting network's ability to select critical stimuli, while a well-functioning executive control network can improve the efficiency of both the alerting and orienting networks by prioritizing tasks and managing distractions. This interplay ensures that attention is adaptive and optimized for whatever situation arises, demonstrating the flexibility and complexity of the human attention system.

How Neurotransmitters work for Attention Network ?

The association of neurotransmitters with the specific attention networks in the brain helps us understand how chemical signals influence cognitive functions like alerting, orienting, and executive control. Here’s how neurotransmitters are linked to each of these attention networks:

    Alerting Network:

    • Neurotransmitters: Norepinephrine is a key neurotransmitter for the alerting network. It originates from the locus coeruleus in the brainstem and plays a crucial role in regulating arousal and alertness.
    • Function: Norepinephrine enhances the brain's readiness to respond to stimuli. It increases vigilance and speeds reaction times, helping to maintain an alert state. This neurotransmitter ensures that the brain can quickly attend to critical or sudden incoming information.

    Orienting Network:

    • Neurotransmitters: Acetylcholine is predominantly associated with the orienting network. It is released from several areas, including the basal forebrain and brainstem, and is crucial for attentional processes.
    • Function: Acetylcholine facilitates the ability to selectively attend to specific stimuli and locations. It enhances sensory input while filtering out distractions, enabling precise and efficient focusing on particular aspects of the environment.

    Executive Control Network:

    • Neurotransmitters: Dopamine plays a significant role in the executive control network. Dopamine pathways from the midbrain to the frontal lobes are essential for cognitive control and decision-making processes.
    • Function: Dopamine is involved in regulating executive functions such as working memory, cognitive flexibility, and inhibitory control. It supports the ability to manage conflicting information, switch between tasks, and suppress inappropriate responses.

These neurotransmitters work in a complex interplay to regulate attention dynamically, adapting to the demands of the environment and the tasks at hand. This understanding not only enhances our grasp of cognitive functions but also informs treatments for disorders like ADHD, where these networks and neurotransmitter systems may be dysregulated.

Can attention be saturated/overwhelmed ?

Yes, attention can definitely become saturated or overwhelmed, a state often referred to as cognitive overload. This occurs when the demands placed on the cognitive system exceed its capacity to process information effectively. Here are some ways in which attention can become overwhelmed:

  • Multitasking: Engaging in multiple tasks that require attention simultaneously can lead to saturation. Each task competes for the brain's limited cognitive resources, leading to reduced efficiency and increased errors. For example, trying to write an email while listening to a complex podcast can result in neither task being completed successfully.
  • Information Overload: This happens when too much information is presented at once, more than what the brain can handle effectively. In today’s digital age, constant notifications, messages, and vast amounts of data can overwhelm our ability to process information, leading to fatigue and decreased productivity.
  • Prolonged Duration of Attention: Sustaining attention on a single task for an extended period without breaks can lead to mental fatigue. This is because prolonged cognitive engagement depletes the brain's resources, making it harder to maintain focus and process information efficiently.
  • High Complexity of Tasks: Tasks that are inherently complex or involve high levels of uncertainty can strain cognitive resources. For example, solving advanced mathematical problems or making decisions with incomplete information requires intensive cognitive effort, which can quickly lead to saturation.
  • Stress and Emotional Distress: Psychological stress and emotional disturbances can also overwhelm cognitive resources. Stress activates the body’s fight or flight response, diverting attention away from cognitive tasks towards perceived threats, which can reduce the capacity to focus on work or daily activities.

When attention is overwhelmed, the performance of the attention networks (alerting, orienting, and executive control) can be compromised. Under such conditions, the efficiency of processing and responding to environmental demands decreases, and there is an increased likelihood of errors. Managing cognitive load through strategies like taking breaks, prioritizing tasks, reducing multitasking, and creating organized environments can help maintain attentional performance and prevent overwhelm.

Examples of Staturated Attention

Here are a few more examples from daily life, each corresponding to different causes of attention saturation:

  • High Complexity of Tasks
    • Example: When reading books or technical specifications with complicated mathematical formulas or lengthy and complex sentence structures, I find it difficult to keep my attention focused. Just a few lines in, my mind tends to wander, and I start daydreaming instead of processing the information.
    • Root Cause: The high complexity of the content demands significant cognitive resources, which can quickly deplete mental energy and lead to attention fatigue, making sustained focus challenging.
  • Multitasking:
    • Example: Trying to cook a new recipe while helping a child with homework and answering work emails can lead to mistakes like forgetting ingredients or providing incorrect homework help.
    • Root Cause: Simultaneously engaging in several tasks that all require focused attention can overwhelm your cognitive capacity, leading to reduced effectiveness in all tasks.
  • Information Overload:
    • Example: When attending a conference where multiple speakers are presenting a barrage of data, figures, and theories in quick succession, you might find it hard to remember specific details or grasp the main points of the presentations.
    • Root Cause: Being bombarded with too much information in a short time can exceed your brain's ability to process and retain data effectively.
  • Prolonged Duration of Attention:
    • Example: Working on a long, monotonous task like data entry for several hours without breaks can lead to decreased focus, and you might find your mind wandering or feeling numbed.
    • Root Cause: Sustaining attention on a tedious task for a long time without breaks depletes mental energy, leading to attention fatigue and reduced productivity.
  • Stress and Emotional Distress:
    • Example: During periods of high personal stress, such as going through a family crisis, you might find it difficult to concentrate on your daily job tasks, frequently losing track of what you were doing or needing to re-read emails multiple times to understand them.
    • Root Cause: Emotional distress engages emotional and survival circuits of the brain, diverting cognitive resources from regular tasks to deal with the emotional load.

What is ADHD ?

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental condition characterized by patterns of inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity that are more severe and frequent than typically observed in individuals at a comparable level of development. ADHD affects children and teens and can continue into adulthood. It is one of the most commonly diagnosed mental disorders among children and can significantly interfere with school, work, and interpersonal relationships.

What are the Key features of ADHD ?

The key features of ADHD (Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder) are primarily divided into two main categories: inattention and hyperactivity-impulsivity. These features manifest differently depending on the subtype of ADHD (predominantly inattentive, predominantly hyperactive-impulsive, or combined), and they must be evident in multiple settings (e.g., at home and in school) to fit diagnostic criteria. Here are the key features for each category:

  • Inattention:

    • Difficulty Sustaining Attention: Struggles to focus on tasks or play activities.
    • Lack of Attention to Detail: Makes careless mistakes in schoolwork, work, or other activities.
    • Poor Task Completion: Fails to finish schoolwork, chores, or duties in the workplace due to inattentive behavior, not defiance or lack of comprehension.
    • Disorganization: Has trouble organizing tasks and activities.
    • Avoidance of Tasks Needing Sustained Mental Effort: Shows reluctance or avoidance toward tasks that require sustained mental effort, such as schoolwork or homework.
    • Loses Items: Often loses necessary tools for tasks or activities (e.g., school materials, pencils, books, tools, wallets, keys).
    • Easily Distracted: Is easily sidetracked by extraneous stimuli and often forgetful in daily activities.
  • Hyperactivity-Impulsivity:

    • Fidgeting/Tapping: Often fidgets with or taps hands or feet, or squirms in seat.
    • Leaving Seat: Leaves seat in situations where remaining seated is expected.
    • Inappropriate Running/Climbing: Runs about or climbs in situations where it is inappropriate (note: in adolescents or adults, may be limited to feeling restless).
    • Unable to Play Quietly: Often unable to play or engage in leisure activities quietly.
    • Always "On the Go": Acts as if "driven by a motor," unable to stay still for extended periods.
    • Excessive Talking: Talks excessively without appropriate response to social constraints.
    • Blurting Answers: Answers before a question has been completed.
    • Difficulty Waiting Turn: Has trouble waiting his/her turn.
    • Interrupting/Intruding: Interrupts or intrudes on others (e.g., butts into conversations, games, or activities; may start using other people's things without asking or receiving permission).

What are the Types of ADHD ?

ADHD (Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder) is typically classified into three subtypes, each defined by the predominant symptoms present in the individual. These subtypes help to tailor treatment and management strategies to the specific needs of each person. Here are the three primary types of ADHD:

ADHD, Predominantly Inattentive Presentation (ADHD-PI):

This subtype is characterized by significant inattention and distractibility without the hyperactive or impulsive behaviors associated with other types of ADHD. Individuals with this subtype may appear to be daydreaming, forgetful, and disorganized and may have difficulty following instructions and completing tasks.

ADHD, Predominantly Hyperactive-Impulsive Presentation (ADHD-PHI):

Individuals with this subtype display primarily hyperactive and impulsive behaviors, such as fidgeting, difficulty remaining seated, excessive talking, and interrupting others. These symptoms are more pronounced than inattention in this subtype. They often act without thinking and may have difficulty waiting their turn or controlling their immediate reactions.

ADHD, Combined Presentation (ADHD-C):

This is the most common subtype and involves a combination of both inattentive and hyperactive-impulsive symptoms. Individuals with this subtype exhibit six or more symptoms from each of the inattentive and hyperactive-impulsive criteria. This combination leads to significant challenges in academic, social, and occupational functioning.

What are common medication for ADHD ?

Medications for ADHD (Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder) are primarily designed to regulate neurotransmitters in the brain, notably dopamine and norepinephrine, which play critical roles in attention and behavior. There are two main types of medications used to treat ADHD: stimulants, which are the most commonly prescribed, and non-stimulants. Here’s how each type works:


  • Mechanism: Stimulants increase the levels of dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain. These neurotransmitters are associated with attention and thinking. By boosting their levels, stimulants help improve the neural connections and enhance focus and attention.
  • Common Examples:
    • Methylphenidate (Ritalin, Concerta, Daytrana, Metadate, Methylin)
    • Amphetamine-based stimulants (Adderall, Adderall XR, Vyvanse, Dexedrine)
  • Effectiveness: Stimulants are effective in increasing concentration and decreasing impulsivity and hyperactivity in 70-80% of children and adults with ADHD.


  • Mechanism: Non-stimulant medications work by targeting different neurotransmitters that are not typically affected by stimulants but are still involved in attention and executive function. Some increase norepinephrine levels, whereas others affect different neurotransmitter systems.
  • Common Examples:
    • Atomoxetine (Strattera): It is a selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor, increasing the amount of norepinephrine in the brain.
    • Guanfacine (Intuniv) and Clonidine (Kapvay): These are alpha-2 adrenergic agonists that help improve attention and reduce hyperactivity and impulsivity.
  • Effectiveness: Non-stimulants are an option for patients who do not respond well to stimulants, have certain psychiatric conditions, or have adverse side effects from stimulant medications. They may take longer to show effects compared to stimulants.

Both types of medications require careful management to find the optimal type and dosage, as the effectiveness can vary widely among individuals. Regular monitoring by healthcare providers is necessary to adjust the treatment plan as needed and to manage potential side effects. These medications, particularly when combined with behavioral therapies, can significantly improve the symptoms of ADHD and enhance the overall quality of life for those affected.

Is there a condition characterized by hyper attention or excessive focus?

The concept of "hyperattention," where an individual might exhibit unusually high levels of focus or attention, does not correspond directly to a widely recognized medical condition in the same way that disorders like ADHD (Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder) do. However, there are several contexts and conditions where heightened attention or excessive focus can be observed, often as a feature or symptom rather than as a standalone diagnosis:

  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD):Individuals with OCD may exhibit an intense and prolonged focus on specific thoughts, fears (obsessions), or behaviors (compulsions). This can manifest as an excessive attention to detail and an overwhelming need to repeatedly check or perform certain rituals.
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD):People on the autism spectrum may display what could be characterized as hyperattention in the form of intense interests or preoccupations with specific subjects or activities. This can include a deep, sustained focus on particular topics or hobbies.
  • Anxiety Disorders:In conditions like generalized anxiety disorder, individuals may experience hyperarousal that leads to an excessive focus on perceived threats or worries, resulting in an inability to divert attention from these anxieties.
  • Hyperfocus in ADHD:Paradoxically, while ADHD is typically associated with inattention, individuals with ADHD can sometimes experience hyperfocus, a state in which they become deeply engrossed in an activity that highly interests them, to the exclusion of other stimuli. This can make it difficult to shift attention away from the activity.
  • Mania or Hypomania (Bipolar Disorder):During manic or hypomanic episodes, individuals may show an increased energy level and the ability to hyperfocus on tasks or projects. This can lead to a sustained period of intense work but often lacks balance and can interfere with overall functioning.
  • Flow State: This is not a medical condition, but rather a psychological state of intense focus and engagement in an activity. It's often associated with creativity, productivity, and enjoyment. While not inherently problematic, excessive pursuit of flow states can sometimes lead to neglecting other aspects of life.
  • Savant Syndrome: This rare condition is characterized by exceptional skills or abilities in specific areas, such as music, mathematics, or memory. Savants often exhibit intense focus and attention to detail in their areas of expertise.

Each of these conditions involves different underlying mechanisms and implications for treatment. The heightened attention observed is often not beneficial and can interfere with the individual’s general functioning and quality of life. It's also worth noting that what might be perceived as hyperattention can sometimes be a positive trait, particularly in professions or activities that require sustained concentration and detail-oriented work.

Is there any neurological background for white noise as a booster for attention ?

Yes, there is some neurological basis for the use of white noise as a booster for attention, particularly in individuals with attention deficits such as ADHD. The theory behind this is tied to the concept of stochastic resonance, where the right amount of background noise can enhance signal detection and improve cognitive function.

How it works:

  • Signal-to-Noise Ratio: White noise creates a consistent, masking sound that raises the background noise level. This, in turn, makes smaller, distracting noises less noticeable and easier to ignore. It's like increasing the volume of a radio to drown out a conversation in the background.
  • Stochastic Resonance: Research suggests white noise may enhance the brain's ability to detect weak signals through a phenomenon called stochastic resonance. It essentially adds a small amount of random noise to the brain's neural activity, making it easier to distinguish relevant signals from background noise.
  • Optimal Arousal: Moderate levels of white noise can help regulate arousal levels in the brain. For individuals with ADHD, who often experience under-arousal, white noise may increase alertness and attention. For those who are easily overstimulated, it can provide a soothing effect and reduce distractions.
  • Neurotransmitter Modulation: Some studies suggest white noise may influence the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with attention, motivation, and reward. By increasing dopamine levels, white noise may improve focus and task performance.
  • Neural Oscillations: White noise has been shown to affect neural oscillations, which are rhythmic patterns of brain activity associated with different cognitive functions. By modulating these oscillations, white noise may enhance attentional processes.


  • Individual Differences: The effectiveness of white noise can vary significantly depending on individual preferences and the specific task at hand. Some people find it helpful, while others find it distracting.
  • Intensity: The intensity of white noise is crucial. Moderate levels (around 45-50 dB) tend to be most beneficial, while higher levels can be counterproductive and even harmful to hearing.
  • Research Limitations: More research is needed to fully understand the neural mechanisms underlying the effects of white noise on attention and to determine its optimal use in different contexts.


While the research is still ongoing, the existing evidence suggests that white noise can be a helpful tool for improving focus and attention in certain situations. If you're considering using white noise, experiment with different types and intensity levels to find what works best for you.


YouTube/Other Video