Why do we pay attention?

There sure are a lot of distractions in our world.  The more we discover or understand, the more applications that knowledge is given and it fills our world with more and more stuff.  So, in a world of iPhones, cars, people, dogs, music, movies, colors, shapes and constant changes, how do we manage to focus on anything? 


Let's put ourselves back in time to a moment where humanity was first coming into being.  Some 200,000 years ago our earliest ancestors started looking around for the first time.  What did they see? Distractions! Everywhere! Our ability to hunt, gather, use tools, form community and beyond are all hinged around the human brain's ability to look at what's in front of it and focus on what matters.  Early on, relevant objects in day-to-day existence could have been water sources off in the distance or a chance to hunt a meal nearby.  Currently we experience a different type of stimulus like cars passing us or your mobile phone letting you know you've got an urgent email.  Regardless, in both situations the brain needs to examine what is on hand to hone in and focus on what needs to get done.


Recently scientists looked into what allows the brain to truly focus on things and keep distractions at bay.  For a long time, it was understood that there are neural pathways that identify relevant objects in our visual field.  These words, for example, are the relevant objects in your visual field and so you're focusing on them.  The tip of your nose, which you can see now, was probably not the focus until you read these words, which then shifted your focus for a moment.  Hopefully you're back to focusing on these words now!


This focus and ability to pay attention actually has one other remarkable neural pathway involved.  Turns out that that the human brain not only focuses on relevant objects, but it also suppresses the irrelevant objects as well.  This duo, working together, allows us to block out what does not matter and hone in on what does.  Early on, this ability was key to survival for hunting, finding water or any other vital matter.  Over time we've employed our technological capabilities to make some of the basic survival tasks a lot easier, thus freeing up our brains to see what else is possible.  With that said, we've had no trouble filling our lives with culture, tradition, inventions, socializing and beyond.  However, our ability to focus on important issues at hand are still housed the same way in neural pathways through the brain.


After 200,000 years of evolution, we find ourselves able to understand everything from the cosmic background radiation to some of the smallest parts of atoms.  In all this time, we've been able to explore the world around and within us, but the functionality of the brain still remains a big mystery.  Understanding how the brain suppresses certain information and hones in on other data helps explain a little bit more about how the brain functions.  Despite being able to calculate trillions of digits in Pi and being able to send a human-made object beyond the solar system, it's still fascinating that the object responsible for nearly all of our history, art, laws, science and more is still shrouded in mystery.


Will we ever understand how the brain truly works? Well, if we can manage to stay focused...then maybe.