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How training can change the way the brain pays attention

Behavioral training changes the way the human brain processes information and pays attention, according to a new study.

University of California San Diego researchers monitored behavioral performance and brain activity using electroencephalography for over a month in human participants performing a computer task that required them to direct their attention to a visual stimulus.

They discovered that early in the task, attention enhanced the magnitude of sensory-evoked responses in the brain’s visual cortex.

Using computational modeling, the researchers found the attentional gain predicted the benefit of behavioral training.

After extended training, this attentional gain disappeared, even though behavioral performance was still improved compared to before training.

The authors compare it to the experience of a person who has moved to a new city. On the second or third day, driving to work may feel very different than it felt on the first day. Over time, drivers will feel more at ease on the road, not only because they can better remember which road signs to attend to or where to turn, but also because they will have an actual experience of doing so.

The same type of cognitive phenomenon applies not only for everyday-life activities like driving, but also for career-related skills that require training and expertise such as reading x-rays and excelling in sporting activities, the study said.

The findings help reconcile contradictory results observed across studies conducted in different species. Specifically, in monkeys, previous research has demonstrated that changes in neural noise play a more dominant role than attentional gain in supporting attention-related benefits in behavioral performance. The current findings in humans suggest that this particular result from monkey studies could be due to non-human primates being highly-trained.

“Our research, which demonstrates that attentional mechanisms could change with training, teaches us that we can’t fully understand how attention operates at the neural level without understanding how attentional mechanisms may change through a course of training,” said the study’s leader, Sirawaj Itthipuripat. “Thus, our research has important implications for understanding attentional mechanisms, as well as for generalizing results from studies using different species that often require substantially different amounts of training.”

The study is published in the journal PLOS Biology.

By: David Beasley, Staff Writer

Source: PLOS Biology

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