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ant_as_organ_system - ATTENTION AS AN ORGAN SYSTEM Michael...

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1 ATTENTION AS AN ORGAN SYSTEM Michael I. Posner and Jin Fan Sackler Institute, Weill Medical College of Cornell University ABSTRACT In recent years it has been possible to examine selective attention as an organ system with its own functional anatomy, circuitry and cellular structure. Although information remains incomplete on each of these levels, this view has already altered our knowledge concerning many perplexing problems in cognitive science and allowed important insights into neurological and psychiatric disorders of children and of adults. It promises to help describe the evolutionary and developmental basis of a principle brain mechanism of voluntary control, thus advancing the way toward an understanding of how genetics and culture shape control systems. While all humans have an attention system, the efficiency of its operation clearly differs between people. These differences serve as a basis for differences both in intelligence and in emotional control.
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2 1. Introduction Attention is relatively easy to define subjectively as in the classical definition of William James who said: “Everyone knows what attention is. It is the taking possession of the mind in clear and vivid form of one out of what seem several simultaneous objects or trains of thought.” (James, 1890). However, this subjective definition does not provide hints that might lead to an understanding of attentional development or pathologies. The theme of our paper is that it is now possible to view attention much more concretely as an organ system. We follow the dictionary definition of an organ system (Webster’s dictionary). “An organ system may be defined as differentiated structures in animals and plants made up of various cell and tissues and adapted for the performance of some specific function and grouped with other structures into a system”. We believe that viewing attention as an organ system aids in answering many perplexing issues raised in cognitive psychology, psychiatry and neurology. Neuroimaging studies have systemically shown that a wide variety of cognitive tasks can be seen as activating a distributed set of neural areas, each of which can be identified with specific mental operations (Posner & Raichle, 1994; 1998). Perhaps the areas of activation have been more consistent for the study of attention than for any other cognitive system. We can view attention as involving specialized networks to carry out functions such as achieving and maintaining the alert state, orienting to sensory events and controlling thoughts and feelings. Part 2 of this chapter examines the functional anatomy of the network involved in alerting and orienting to sensory events. Orienting to sensory events provides an important model for the study of attention. Part 3 considers attention in the sense of exercising voluntary control over thoughts, feelings and actions. In this section we examine a frontal network involved in this form of cognitive and emotional control. Next we consider the development of attentional networks in normal individuals.
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