Some people can't finish a newspaper story before their mind takes flight, while others easily concentrate on a single activity for hours. If only the hyperfocused would pass along their secrets. In fact, by using advances in fMRIs (functional magnetic resonance imaging) that enable people to “see” segments of their gray matter in real time and do something to change it, scientists are working on training the brain to increase its attention span.
To help subjects improve their selective auditory attention—the ability to zero in on, say, one conversation amid the din of a cocktail party—Seung-Schik Yoo, PhD, associate professor of radiology at Harvard Medical School, put subjects in MRI machines and had them listen to a baseline sound (something like a dial tone). When the tone morphed into woo woo, they were instructed to concentrate harder by imagining it was coming from farther away. While the subjects were doing the exercise, Yoo zapped back a number on a screen indicating how active their brain region for selective auditory attention was. “Paying attention is a very abstract phrase,” he says. “Participants were able to crystallize [the experience] with a concrete number showing how well they were doing it.”
How soon can we sign up, wandering minds want to know. This research is still in the earliest stages, scientists say. Meanwhile, other investigators are exploring using the fMRI feedback technique to help manage ADHD and control pain. Stay tuned...if you can.