Attention control involves three areas of the brain that activate, regulate, and monitor how information is received and processed. All three regions work together to supply the mental energy necessary for concentration, allow the mind to focus on important details, and permit completion of tasks despite distractions. When all areas of the brain work in concert, attention control can be accomplished and switched to another job as needed.
Mental energy control occurs in the brainstem. This region regulates alertness and balances arousal and sleep states. Energy is allocated to effort when tasks require attention control, but it decreases to permit sleep. Dysfunction of mental energy control typically causes sleepiness during the day and an inability to maintain focus to start and finish a task. This part of the mind regulates energy cycles from day to day and task to task.
Processing controls also play an important role in attention control. Activity in the cortex and midbrain manage how information is analyzed and used, often called selective attention. These areas allow the mind to prioritize data to finish a task by using prior experience to rank the level of importance of incoming information. People suffering from processing control dysfunction might become distracted by audio or visual stimuli. Attention control might be hampered by an inability to identify main points in a problem or focus on minute details.
The third area of the brain governs production control needed to concentrate. Occurring in the prefrontal cortex, this process permits the mind to analyze options, predict outcomes, and foresee consequences of various actions. Attention control requires pacing in this area of the brain to prevent working too slowly or too quickly on the task. When operating efficiently, production control allows the mind to break down complex, difficult problems into manageable segments. Dysfunction of this process might lead to impulsive behavior and frustration.
Researchers studied how different areas of the brain work together to facilitate attention control while learning, on the job, and in social settings. They used a drug approved for sleep disorders that quiets activity in the brainstem to manage mental energy. Scientists discovered participants could focus better because the drug increased coordination between the processing center in the prefrontal cortex and the brainstem.
When concentration is not needed, neurons in the prefrontal cortex typically fire randomly when thoughts and external stimuli intrude. If a person with normal functioning in all three parts of the brain wants to concentrate, neurons become more inactive. They only fire to process and analyze information needed for selective attention to complete the task at hand. This focused attention also allows a person to continue attention control when unmotivated or bored.