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What is Attention?

So you may have noticed in your BCI Connect application, there is a graph representing your attention in real time. Of course, you may have asked the question:

“How on earth can a headband measure attention? Isn’t this something my teacher notices when I daydream in class?”

Well fear not, fellow cognitive traveler. We are going to learn all about how the signals picked up from your brain can be analyzed, processed and then turned into visual materials for you to see the graphs on your screen. But before we jump too deeply into the science and technology behind this concept, we need to develop a working definition of what attention really is from a neuroscience and cognitive science background.

Attention in this form is centered around the concept of “high cognitive activity”. When your brain is focused in on a mentally challenging task for sustained period of time, the electrical activity in your head will give off certain signals that we can measure and then display to you. There are a lot of fancy words being thrown around here so let’s start with “high cognitive activity.” Here are some examples of high cognitive activity that you may have encountered:

  • Imagine you have been given a very difficult math problem. You stare at the paper with the math problem on it, do calculations in your head, test out ideas and think very hard about next steps. You work very hard on this and after a few minutes, feel mentally tired and need to take a break.
  • Imagine you have been tasked with counting the number of stars in the night sky. You start from one side and slowly move to the other, being careful not to lose count or get distracted. If you are interrupted, you will lose count and need to start over again. You need to focus and stay on task.
  • Imagine you are balancing a spinning basketball on your finger. You need to pay attention to small movements of the ball on your hand and cannot be distracted by other things around you. You are totally focused in and will not allow the ball to fall down.

You may have noticed words like attention, focus, on task and no distractions. That is exactly what the attention algorithm can measure! If you do any of these “high cognitive activity tasks, your attention score will rise!

Now that we understand “high cognitive activity a little better what would some examples of “low cognitive activity” include? Remember, the focus algorithm we are using is centered around items like “sustained”, “focus” and “challenging”. Then to make your score go down, we will need to think of some activities that are the opposite. What then, is “low cognitive activity”?

  • Imagine you are sitting in a comfortable chair with your eyes closed and relaxed. Your mind is clear and you are not engaged in anything taking up your attention.
  • You are trying to focus on solving that difficult math problem but after a few seconds, your mind wanders to something else. You realize that your attention is drifting off and try to reengage. However, after trying again for another 20 seconds, you get frustrated and distracted again.
  • Imagine you are once again trying to count stars in the night sky. You count 5, 10 then 20 stars but then your phone rings and start talking to you friend. While you are talking to your friend, you keep looking at the sky to count, but can’t remember where you kept count.

If these situations sound familiar, try tracking your progress with NeuroMaker BCI Connect! Not only is this a great way to get information about how your brain is functioning, this will also prepare you for using your mind to control machines using BCI technology. 

How Do We Turn This Attention into Numbers?

Well, much like most cool things in the world, this methodology started at NASA!

Remember, the attention score we just learned about is tracking high levels of cognitive activity. This allows us to visually detect how well someone is focused in on completing a mental task that requires a lot of concentration and sustained focus. Now imagine being a person that needs to fly a billion dollar space shuttle into space and back. This person better be capable of focusing in on their mission and the people managing this program better be sure they find the right pilot!

Therefore, in the mid-1990s, NASA scientists developed a method measure and study people’s cognitive engagement levels with numbers that they could compare with other people. The motive of their research was to better understand “hazardous states of awareness”, both the distracted and overly stressed cognitive states, that made it easy for airplane pilots to make dangerous mistakes during flight. 

The method they developed used EEG acquired brainwave data, just like the NeuroMaker BCI device you have. The NASA Engagement Index is obtained by dividing the power of the high-frequency beta waves, by low-frequency alpha and theta waves. You can actually see some of these bands in real time by viewing the alpha and beta wave sections of your NeuroMaker BCI Connect dashboard. We will revisit more of the science and ways you can use alpha and beta waves in the NeuroMaker BCI curriculum. By the end the curriculum, you will actually be able to make your own simple engagement index very similar to the one NASA scientists use!

The attention graph you see on your BCI Connect dashboard is based off of this engagement index. We tested this program with hundreds of people and refined the way this number is presented to compensate for differences like age and brain conditions that different people have. The background science gets a little more complicated but don’t worry we will learn all about this in the future.

Attention Levels 0 to 100

So now we understand the basics of what attention is being measured and a little bit about how that attention can be represented as numbers. Your next question then may be, what do these numbers means on my graph?

Focusing in on the attention graph of the NeuroMaker Connect software, you will see numbers on the x and the y axes. The x axis on the bottom is the number of seconds that have passed. The y axis, however, is something called the attention score. This is a number scale from 0 to 100 that our engineers have developed to measure your focus in real time that is easy to compare with others. This attention index is scaled in the following format:

0 – 35: Low Attention or Low Cognitive Activity

Brain activity within this score range means that you are either distracted, relaxed, not engaged or calm. Understanding what this number means is very dependent on the activity that you are performing. For example:

  • If you spend about 60 seconds meditating, trying to relax or clearing your mind and see you your score below 35, congratulations! Staying in this range means you are engaging in low cognitive activity.
  • If you spend about 60 to 90 seconds trying to focus on something that takes lots of mental work like counting backwards from 200 by 3’s in your head (200, 197, 194, etc.), staying below a 35 score means you are not focused or distracted. 

35 – 65 Moderate Attention

Brain activity within this score means you are falling within typical levels of engagement for doing about your daily business. For most people using this index, falling within this range is typical for activities like having a conversation with someone, reading a book for pleasure, typing on your computer, watching TV, etc. Most of the time you are going through your day you are going to be showing a score within this range.

If you are going from a low score attention score to higher one as you focus, you may stay in this range as you move into a flow state. Oppositely, if you are going from a very focused and attentive state to a more relaxed one as your score goes down, you may also travel through the moderate attention range as you start to relax.

65 – 100 High Attention or High Cognitive Activity

Brain activity within this score means you are entering a “flow state”. This means you are sustaining a high amount of concentration as you focus in on the completion of your current task at hand. If you have ever felt “in the zone” as you work hard on something, that kind of activity would most likely place you in the 65 – 100 attention score range. As we saw with low attention scores, having a high score is simply a reflection of what is happening in your brain so whether this is “good” or “bad” is entirely dependent on what you wish to do. For example:

  • If you spend about 60 seconds meditating or trying to clear you mind and your score consistently stays above 65, you are probably having a difficult time trying to do that. This high score shows us that you are expending a lot of mental energy thinking about something. 
  • Imagine you spend about 60 to 90 seconds trying to deeply focus on completing a task that takes a lot of sustained, mental energy, like reading something in a foreign language, solving a difficult crossword puzzle or making a difficult calculation. If you can stay on task, not get distracted and keep your mind actively engaged, a score about 65 means that you are paying very close attention to your work.

Note: Do not get discouraged if your scores don’t match up with the results you wish. There is an entire medical concept called neurofeedback training, which is dedicated to instructing people how to become better at focusing, relaxing and many other tasks. Not everyone will be able to move their scores up and down easily at first, however we can all get better with practice!

What Should I Try Next?

Try to see if you can move your attention score up and down through your own thoughts and actions! By viewing the attention graph on your BCI Connect, try doing the following activities to move your attention score up and down:

Activities to Move Your Attention Score Up

Remember: Your score will move up when you are fully engaged in doing something while not being distracted. Sustain a certain activity for at least 30 to 60 seconds.

  • Close your eyes and count backwards from 200 in increments of 3 going from 200 to 197 to 194, etc.
  • Find a textbook or other class material and focus on reading it deeply and understanding the content. 
  • Find a textbook or long online text and reading slowly from line to line, try to count every “e” you can see on the page for at least one minute.

Activities to Move Your Attention Score Down

Remember: Your score will move down when you are NOT cognitively active in a certain task. This will be visible when you are distracted or when your mind is clear.

  • Close your eyes, sit in a comfortable position and clear your mind while meditating for 60 to 90 minutes. Try to focus on something light like your breathing. Do your best not have your focus distracted by things like people talking around you or other background noise.
  • Do any of the activities above to raise your attention score up. Then, try distracting yourself to move the score down. For instance, play music or have a conversation with a classmate. If you are starting from a high score, these activities should bring your score down.
  • Try “spacing out” like daydreaming in class. Stare out the window and make your mind go blank as you lightly think about non-class related activities.

Why Does This Matter?

Good question! At first glance, all this attention number is telling me is how well I am paying attention to something. However there are two much deeper concepts that you have just taken your first steps into through this understanding. 

Neurofeedback Training

You may not have realized it, but your completion of the above exercises were small examples of neurofeedback training! Neurofeedback training is the process of showing a person their brain activity with the purpose of training that person to improve mental performance. As we learned above, NASA uses neurofeedback training to help pilots visualize their brain activity during high stress activities so these people can perform better at their work. NeuroMaker’s partner organization BrainCo uses a very similar attention score to train F1 race car drivers how to enter a highly attentive state before they start their races. 

The concept is simple. Use the data from this technology to analyze the best way for people to enter a focused or relaxed state and then have these people practice again and again how to control their own mental performance. Using your BCI set, you can try your own experiments how to conduct neurofeedback for yourself and your classmates!

Brain Controlled Machines

Contrary to the world of sci-fi movies, BCI devices CANNOT be controlled through mind reading. With current technology, it is not possible to think of turning on a light and then have a light turn on. However, we can use different signals your brain gives off to control other items. The attention score you have just learned about is one way we can do this. Once you have mastered entering a relaxed or focused state using the attention score, you now can control an input that a computer can understand. In a matter of fact, you can actually connect your BCI Connect software to a microcontroller and then program that board to respond to your attentions commands. You can’t turn on a light through mindreading, but you can turn on a light by increasing and decreasing your measurable focus!

This is a very important concept in brain computer interface technology. Mastering this technology is much more than developing technology to read different signals in your brain. You must also as a human learn how to control those signals in order for a machine to understand them. Since a computer can understand a 0-100 number like the attention score, you can think of mastering your movement of the attention score as learning a foreign language to speak with your BCI computer. By focusing more, your computer will see a higher number. By relaxing more, your computer will see a lower number. You can now use these number inputs to control other items on your devices with a little programming.