The brain seems to be wired to be periodically distractible

Thursday, October 10th, 2019

To pay attention, the brain uses filters, not a spotlight:

For a long time, because attention seemed so intricately tied up with consciousness and other complex functions, scientists assumed that it was first and foremost a cortical phenomenon. A major departure from that line of thinking came in 1984, when Francis Crick, known for his work on the structure of DNA, proposed that the attentional searchlight was controlled by a region deep in the brain called the thalamus, parts of which receive input from sensory domains and feed information to the cortex. He developed a theory in which the sensory thalamus acted not just as a relay station, but also as a gatekeeper — not just a bridge, but a sieve — staunching some of the flow of data to establish a certain level of focus.


[Michael Halassa, a neuroscientist at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology] was drawn to a thin layer of inhibitory neurons called the thalamic reticular nucleus (TRN), which wraps around the rest of the thalamus like a shell. By the time Halassa was a postdoctoral researcher, he had already found a coarse level of gating in that brain area: The TRN seemed to let sensory inputs through when an animal was awake and attentive to something in its environment, but it suppressed them when the animal was asleep.

In 2015, Halassa and his colleagues discovered another, finer level of gating that further implicated the TRN as part of Crick’s long-sought circuit — this time involving how animals select what to focus on when their attention is divided among different senses. In the study, the researchers used mice trained to run as directed by flashing lights and sweeping audio tones. They then simultaneously presented the animals with conflicting commands from the lights and tones, but also cued them about which signal to disregard. The mice’s responses showed how effectively they were focusing their attention. Throughout the task, the researchers used well-established techniques to shut off activity in various brain regions to see what interfered with the animals’ performance.

As expected, the prefrontal cortex, which issues high-level commands to other parts of the brain, was crucial. But the team also observed that if a trial required the mice to attend to vision, turning on neurons in the visual TRN interfered with their performance. And when those neurons were silenced, the mice had more difficulty paying attention to sound. In effect, the network was turning the knobs on inhibitory processes, not excitatory ones, with the TRN inhibiting information that the prefrontal cortex deemed distracting. If the mouse needed to prioritize auditory information, the prefrontal cortex told the visual TRN to increase its activity to suppress the visual thalamus — stripping away irrelevant visual data.

The attentional searchlight metaphor was backward: The brain wasn’t brightening the light on stimuli of interest; it was lowering the lights on everything else.


With tasks similar to those they’d used in 2015, the team probed the functional effects of various brain regions on one another, as well as the neuronal connections between them. The full circuit, they found, goes from the prefrontal cortex to a much deeper structure called the basal ganglia (often associated with motor control and a host of other functions), then to the TRN and the thalamus, before finally going back up to higher cortical regions. So, for instance, as visual information passes from the eye to the visual thalamus, it can get intercepted almost immediately if it’s not relevant to the given task. The basal ganglia can step in and activate the visual TRN to screen out the extraneous stimuli, in keeping with the prefrontal cortex’s directive.


Halassa’s findings indicate that the brain casts extraneous perceptions aside earlier than expected. “What’s interesting,” said Ian Fiebelkorn, a cognitive neuroscientist at Princeton University, is that “filtering is starting at that very first step, before the information even reaches the visual cortex.”


According to his findings, the focus of the attentional spotlight seems to get relatively weaker about four times per second, presumably to prevent animals from staying overly focused on a single location or stimulus in their environment. That very brief suppression of what’s important gives other, peripheral stimuli an indirect boost, creating an opportunity for the brain to shift its attention to something else if necessary. “The brain seems to be wired to be periodically distractible,” he said.


  1. I wonder if this is related to the need to be distractable so you aren’t blindsided by a predeator while hunting deer or something like that.

Leave a Reply