We often think of focusing our attention as a personal decision, a small act of willpower that trains our thoughts and actions on a specific task. In reality, our brains are feeding us little bits of stored information—past experiences, logical deductions, desires—to help us focus on what is important and ignore the rest. But how does our brain know what is useful, and how does it turn that information into directed attention?
Thilo Womelsdorf is tracing the roots of attention all the way down to the individual brain cells that store the insights and memories that guide our thoughts. The York University professor and his team work at the intersection of neuroscience, psychology, biology and computer engineering to understand this complex process. Womelsdorf’s research integrates next-generation neuro-technologies, including micro-sensors that record the activity of hundreds of brain cells and map how these cells form circuits and then larger neural networks, to transmit relevant information throughout the mind. These signals tell us, for example, that we need to be careful about the red-hot stove element but can tune out the buzzing of the refrigerator when we’re preparing a cup of tea.
Womelsdorf’s work is illuminating the innermost workings of the brain and helping medical professionals determine when exactly the functions of a healthy brain begin to deteriorate under the effects of mental or neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease. By providing detailed maps of the neural networks that guide our attention, and an unprecedented understanding of the biological operations behind them, Womelsdorf is steering us toward new technologies and strategies for combatting these disorders.