We all know what attention is. William James said it best:
Attention is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. Focalization, concentration, of consciousness are of its essence. It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state which in French is called distraction, and Zerstreutheit in German.
James is describing the spotlight model of attention: If the world is a vast stage, then we only notice things that fall within the narrow circle of illumination. Everything outside the spotlight remains invisible. This is because, as James pointed out, the act of attention is intertwined with the act of withdrawal; to concentrate on one thing is to ignore everything else.
And this brings me to my question: How do babies pay attention? What is it like to look at the world like an infant? The question is particularly interesting because the ability to pay attention, focusing that spotlight on a thin slice of the stage, depends on the frontal cortex, that lobe of brain behind the forehead. Alas, the frontal cortex isn’t fully formed until late adolescence – ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny – which means that it’s just beginning to solidify in babies. The end result is that little kids struggle to focus.
This has led the UC-Berkeley developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik – I’m a huge fan of her latest book, The Philosophical Baby – to suggest that babies don’t have a spotlight of attention: They have a lantern. If attention is like a focused beam in adults, then it’s more like a glowing bulb in babies, casting a diffuse radiance across the world. This crucial difference in attention has been demonstrated indirectly in a variety of experiments. For instance, when preschoolers are shown a photograph of someone – let’s call her Jane— looking at a picture, and asked questions about what Jane is paying attention to, the weirdness of their attention becomes clear. Not surprisingly, the kids agree that Jane is thinking about the picture she’s staring at. But they also insist that she’s thinking about the picture frame, and the wall behind the picture, and the chair lurking in her peripheral vision. In other words, they believe that Jane is attending to whatever she can see.
Or consider this memory task designed by John Hagen, a developmental psychologist at the University of Michigan. A child is given a deck of cards and shown two cards at a time. The child is told to remember the card on the right and to ignore the card on the left. Not surprisingly, older children and adults are much better at remembering the cards they were told to focus on, since they’re able to direct their attention. However, young children are often better at remembering the cards on the left, which they were supposed to ignore. The lantern casts its light everywhere.
And now there’s a brand new paper in Psychological Science by Faraz Farzin, Susan Rivera and David Whitney that provides some of the best evidence yet for the lantern hypothesis. The experiment itself involved tracking the eye movements of infants between 6 and 15 months of age. The researchers used a special stimuli known as a Mooney face. What makes these images useful is that they can’t be perceived using bottom-up sensory processes. Instead, the only way to see the shadowed faces is to stare straight at them – unless we pay attention the faces remain incomprehensible, just a mass of black and white splotches. In this experiment, however, the babies were able to perceive the faces even when they were located in the periphery of their visual field. (Trust me: You can’t do this.) Because their lantern was so diffuse, they were able to notice stimuli on a much vaster sensory stage. In subsequent experiments, the researchers found that this lantern of attention came with a tradeoff. While babies notice more, they see with less precision. In fact, the “effective spatial resolution” of infants’ visual perception was only half that of adults, although it steadily increased with age.
In The Philosophical Baby, Gopnik speculates that, while we often assume the inability to pay attention is a failing, a limitation imposed on infants by their mushy frontal lobes, it also confers certain advantages. For starters, it allows young children to figure out the world at an incredibly fast pace. Although babies are born utterly helpless, within a few years they’ve mastered everything from language – a toddler learns 10 new words every day – to complex motor skills such as walking. According to this new view of the baby brain, many of the mental traits that used to seem like developmental shortcomings, such as infants’ inability to focus their attention, are actually crucial assets in the learning process. Because babies notice everything, they’re better able to figure out how it all hangs together. So the next time you look at a baby, remember: They can see more than you.
(聚精会神的)专注是，在同时存在几个可能的观察对象或思考对象时，大脑清晰而生动地牢牢抓住其中一个的状态。专注的本质是意识的聚焦和集中。这就意味着舍弃一些东西，以便更有效地处理所专注的事情。专注是与困惑，迷茫，浮躁 (法语叫distraction，德语叫Zerstreutheit) 恰恰相反的心理状态。
这使我想到我的问题: 婴儿们如何专注？像婴幼儿那样看世界是一个什么样子？现在让问题特别有趣的是，人类关注的能力，即仅仅注意舞台上的聚光灯下那一小块地方的能力，是由额叶皮质(前额背后的脑叶) 决定的。但是额叶皮质，直到青春期后期, 才能完全形成。这意味着，婴幼儿期的大脑还没完全发育成熟。最终的结果是，小孩子为了专注，必须要费很大力气。
这就导致了加州大学伯克利分校的发展心理学家阿里思-高坡尼科(Alison Gopnik)建议说，婴幼儿实际上没有一个关注焦点：他们有的只是灯笼。( 我很喜欢她的最新著作，"哲学婴儿"The Philosophical Baby) 如果成人的注意力像一束探照灯光，那么婴幼儿的更像是一个灯泡，光芒普照四面八方。注意力的这个关键的区别，已被各种实验间接地证明了。例如，当研究者向学龄前儿童显示某个人的照片时，让我们称她为"简"，并询问儿童，简正在盯着看什么东西时，儿童们关于注意力的答案就会变得很古怪。毫不奇怪，孩子们一致认为简是盯着看一张画。但是，他们还坚持认为，她还在看着画框，及其挂着画的背后那面墙，以及边上放着的椅子。换句话说，孩子们认为简是在看着一切她可以看到的东西。
法拉兹-法曾，苏珊-里维拉和大卫-惠特尼在"心理科学"杂志上有一篇新论文，为灯笼的假设提供了到目前为止最好的证据。实验本身涉及到跟踪6至15个月大的婴幼儿的眼球运动。研究人员使用一个已知的特殊的名叫"穆尼脸谱"的刺激方法。使得这些图像有用的是，它们不能被自下而上的感觉过程所理解。相反，只有直直地盯着它们看 ，才能看出那些阴影区到底是什么，否则，它们看起了就像是一些无法理解的黑色和白色的斑点。但是，在这个实验中，婴幼儿能够感知到这些面孔，即使把它们放置在婴幼儿视野的边缘。 （相信我，你这样的成年人无法做到），因为他们的灯笼是如此的照亮四方，使得他们能够在一个更广阔的舞台上感知外界的刺激。