Scientists learn how the brain enables us to rapidly focus attention

on 01 January 2019
The brain's magic revealed

Acetylcholine (ACh), maybe you have heard of it, maybe you haven't but either way, it works in the background managing the way your brain manages your life. Essentially it is the manager of the management system and our mind. Hypnosis helps us to selectively better manage the mind and thus enabling a more efficient outcome to life. . . . 

Acetylcholine, the Brain's super manager-organiser!

Acetylcholine is described as a neuromodulator, meaning it is neither excitatory nor inhibitory. Glutamate, which is the most prolific excitatory neurotransmitter and GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), the most inhibitory in our brain is modulated by the cholinergic system and somehow determines the various ways in which these and many other neurotransmitters respond to the sensory stimuli we receive from the world around us.

In fact, the cholinergic system plays a major role throughout the whole of the brain and acetylcholine is known to be a major force in how the brain responds to stress and anxiety. Acetylcholine (ACh) has been suggested to be critical for the response to uncertainty, such that an increase in cholinergic tone predicts the unreliability of predictive cues in a known context, and improves the signal-to-noise ratio in a learning environment (Yu and Dayan, 2005). The part of the stress system that deals more in relation to uncertainty, is the BNST (bed nucleus of stria terminalis), a part of the extended amygdala. The ways in which we respond to stressful stimuli are running continually in the background, just merely awaiting the right signal, at the right moment; much of which is contained throughout our brain in what is called memory engrams.

So, this research gives us insight into how ACh actually allows us to unwittingly focus on all the things that we do not want to focus on, like anxiety, broken relationships, fears etc. These types of things just demand our attention. Hence why clients often say, "I just can't stop focusing on" this or that! Clearly, hypnosis plays a role in allowing the brain to switch its subject of focus and in the process, allows the brain to return to a more normal response to the world around us. And, in the midst of all that, we can then begin to live a more normal life. While the apparent intent of this research is in defining how the brain allows us to be, subconsciously, attentive to what appears to be most important, e.g. putting all of our resources on the task at hand or, to keep a listening ear/eye out for something important, it also explains why we tend to hyperfocus on stressful stimuli.

In clinical practice, it is important to be on the lookout for the illogical, the irrational and the unreasonable because these are the very things that are likely to stimulate the production of ACh and the cholinergic system in general. Hypnosis is essentially a way in which we can learn to communicate at the neuronal level. In that context, I see the mind as a word that describes brain language and our spoken language, the means by which we communicate with the mind! It is the degree to which we use logic, analysis and rationale to make sense of life, that ultimately makes the mind appear to be so complex in the way it dominates our life. Very often the meaning we attach to something as a child, defines how we respond to it as an adult. And while, as an adult, we can see, understand and refute something that is illogical, somehow we cannot override that childhood illogic. Arachnophobia is a good example. Every client I have worked with, who had a fear of spiders, knew it was illogical and irrational but this was conscious thinking and the fear was under the control of subconscious processes. Hypnosis thus allows the rationalisation of irrational processing, the localisation of the illogical. Essentially, hypnosis allows us to make sense of, Non-sense!

Hypnotherapy stands out as one of the most effective strategic life management methods there is, especially in its ability to promote clear thinking and good states of mental wellness. The behaviours that make life challenging are often a result of too much stress, too little sleep and too little by way of clarity! So, to take back control of your mind and your life, it makes perfect sense to use a methodology that addresses the subconscious mind's role in perpetuating negative, vague and ambiguous states of mind. Hypnosis helps us to create calm relaxing states of mind that make life work better! If you would like to address any concerns you have in this direction, or, if you just want to make your life feel better,  then why not make an appointment for a Free Consultation? Hypnosis gives you the ability to have a good life! 

The objective here is to help people understand how and why we become illogically trapped into irrational emotional experiences that may actually be happening for reasons different to that which we would imagine! If you want to know more about how Hypnotherapy can help you; why not make an appointment for a Free Consultation?

For more information on the Free Consultation - Go Here Or, to book your Free Consultation today, you can do so here

The Research: 

Queensland University researchers have discovered a key mechanism in the brain that may underlie our ability to rapidly focus attention. Our brains are continuously bombarded with information from the senses, yet our level of vigilance to such input varies, allowing us to selectively focus on one conversation and not another.

Professor Stephen Williams of the Queensland Brain Institute at UQ explains, "If we want to give our full concentration, something happens in the brain to enable us to focus and filter out distractions." "There must be a mechanism that signals the thing we want to focus on." However, this mechanism is not well understood, he says.

Research has shown that the electrical activity of the neocortex of the brain changes when we focus our attention. Neurons stop signalling in sync with one another and start firing out of sync. This is helpful, says Williams, because it allows individual neurons to respond to sensory information in different ways. Thus, you can focus on a car speeding down the road or on what a friend is saying in a crowded room. It's known that the cholinergic system in the brain plays an important role in triggering this desynchronisation.

The cholinergic system consists of clusters of special neurons that synthesise and release a signalling molecule called acetylcholine, he explains, and these clusters make far-reaching connections throughout the brain. Not only does this cholinergic system act as a master switch, but mounting evidence suggests it also enables the brain to identify which sensory input is the most salient -- i.e. worthy of attention -- at any given moment and then shine a spotlight on that input. "The cholinergic system broadcasts to the brain, 'this thing is really important to be vigilant to'," says Williams.

He adds that the cholinergic system has been proposed to have a far-reaching impact on our cognitive abilities. "Destruction of the cholinergic system in animals profoundly degrades cognition, and the formation of memory," he says. "Importantly, in humans, progressive degeneration of the cholinergic system occurs in devastating diseases that blunt cognition and memory, such as Alzheimer's disease."

But precisely which neurons in the cortex are being targeted by this master switch and how it's able to influence their function was unknown. Williams and QBI researcher Lee Fletcher wondered if layer 5 B-pyramidal neurons, the 'output' neurons of the neocortex, might be involved because they are intimately involved in how we perceive the world. "The output neurons of the neocortex perform computations that are thought to underlie our perception of the world," says Williams. Williams and Fletcher wanted to know if the cholinergic system is able to influence the activity of these output neurons.

Using a technique called optogenetics, they modified neurons in the cholinergic system in the brains of mice so that they could be activated with a flash of blue light, triggering a sudden release of acetylcholine.

This allowed the researchers to closely monitor the interaction between the cholinergic system and the output neurons. They discovered that if the output neurons were not currently active, not much happened. But when those neurons received excitatory input to their dendrites, the cholinergic system was able to massively increase their activity. "It's as if the cholinergic system has given a 'go' signal," says Fletcher, enabling the output neurons of the neocortex to powerfully respond. Importantly, this change was selective, and only apparent when excitatory input was being processed in the dendrites of the 'output' neurons.

"We have known for some time that the dendrites of the output neurons of the neocortex only become active when animals are actively performing a behaviour and that this activity is correlated with perception and task performance," says Williams. This new work demonstrates that the cholinergic system is critical to this transition in mice and rats, allowing the output neurons to perform computations in a state-dependent manner.

"We suggest that this switch also occurs in the human neocortex, allowing us to rapidly switch our state of vigilance and attention," says Williams. "Our work, therefore, provides important insight into how the progressive degeneration of the cholinergic system in disease blunts human cognition."

Story Source:

Materials provided by the University of QueenslandNote: Content may be edited for style and length.

Journal Reference:

  1. Stephen R. Williams, Lee N. Fletcher. A Dendritic Substrate for the Cholinergic Control of Neocortical Output NeuronsNeuron, 2018; DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2018.11.035

Cite This Page:

The University of Queensland. "How the brain enables us to rapidly focus attention." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 27 December 2018. <>.