On Attention, Plasticity, Learning, Individuality

by Kimberly on October 15, 2009 · 2 comments

A couple of weeks ago I wrote an article about the 4 different types of attention–sustained, selective, divided, joint–and gave examples of how you can address each in a therapy session. After reading the article, my friend Lisa contacted me on Facebook and asked:

(C)an the different types of attention really be learned or do you think people are born with a certain threshold and once they reach it, they’re done?neurons

Lisa’s question speaks to plasticity, also called neuroplasticity. Our brain has an amazing ability to change and adapt in response to the environment. It’s how babies learn. The brain of a baby reared in a sensory-rich, loving, nurturing environment will develop differently than that of a baby reared in a neglected, chaotic, abusive environment. Their two brains will develop differently because they need different skills to survive in their environment.

Same is true for someone who has had a neurologic insult, such as a stroke. A stroke occurs when blood cannot get to the brain. Often, the part of the brain that is deprived of blood dies. The symptoms of a stroke vary depending on which part died–muscle weakness, aphasia, memory, spasticity, apraxia, memory problems, etc.

But what’s really cool is that with therapy (especially with therapy that starts early), the brain can re-organize itself and develop new pathways as it re-learns the lost skill. Because of plasticity, a person who had a stroke can re-learn how to walk and talk again. They may not do it exactly the same as before (after all, there are different neural pathways working), but it is possible.

My answer to Lisa:

I think all the types of attention can be learned. That said, you do need to start from the bottom-up. You can’t start working on divided attention if your sustained attention skills are lacking (kind of like you can’t start learning to walk until you learn to sit up). And it might take some people longer to develop these skills than others. If you think about it–many of us are still working on some of these skills!

The second point, about starting “from the bottom-up“, refers to how we develop skills. There are some basic skills that need to be learned before more complex skills can develop. Regarding attention, we need to first be able to sustain our attention before any other type of attention can be addressed.

What does this mean clinically? As an example, I work on attention with my trauma-influenced clients (all children age 3-12) at every session. Most sessions we are just trying to focus and maintain our attention on a single task–sustained attention. With the older kids, if they are feeling regulated and calm, I may target a different type of attention–selective or divided, usually. But if those children are stressed, I bring it back to the basics of sustained attention. Their brains cannot handle the more complex types.

And the last point (“it might take some people longer to develop these skills than others”) speaks to individuality. Every single person is unique. Cliché, but true. We have our own temperaments and our own experiences that shape how we learn and grow. As such, it may take one person longer to learn certain skills than another person.

If you have any other thoughts on the subject of attention, plasticity, development, and individuality, please share them in the comments below. It’s our interactions that help keep this blog going, so thank you for staying connected!

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Kelsey June 18, 2010 at 9:16 am

Attention for me has always been an issue (my doctor diagnosed me with A.D.D. when I was younger). I stopped taking medicine for it long ago because a) it didn’t work very well and b) I refused to be considered disabled or sick. Since then, school has been a struggle but I’ve done pretty well considering my trouble with attention. I’m wondering if you’ve ever worked with someone that has A.D.D., and maybe some everyday tips and techniques for maintaining attention?
By the way, I LOVE your blog! I’m thinking about becoming a music therapist and this is really a great resource, probably the best I’ve found.

Kimberly July 15, 2010 at 1:54 pm

Thank you for your interested. Regarding everything tips and techniques–that will involves a little trial-and-error to find out what works for you individually. It may be that having some background sensory input (e.g. music or smell or different lighting) helps you focus. Maybe it hinders your focus. Maybe taking short walking breaks every 30 minutes will help. There are lots of different tricks available–you have to find what works for you. Good luck! ~Kimberly

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