The Brain's "Switchboard Operator"
According to a release from Princeton University, a mysterious region deep in the human brain could be where we "sort through the onslaught of stimuli from the outside world and focus on the information most important to our behavior and survival."
The Princeton researchers published their findings in the journal Science. They revealed that an area of our brain called the pulvinar regulates communication between clusters of brain cells as our brain focuses on the people and objects that need our attention. They liken the pulvinar to a switchboard operator. "The pulvinar makes sure that separate areas of the visual cortex — which processes visual information — are communicating about the same external information," explained lead author Yuri Saalmann, an associate research scholar in the Princeton Neuroscience Institute.
In plain language, when your pulvinar is functioning properly, you notice an oncoming bus as you're crossing the street and get out of the way. Without your pulvinar to guide you, you might focus on unimportant sights such as the person coming toward you from across the street. As a result, you might not notice the bus in time.
Saalmann and his team hope that their findings regarding how the brain transmits information could lead to new treatments attention disorders such as ADHD and schizophrenia. "A fundamental problem for the brain is that there is too much information in our natural environment for it to be processed in detail at the same time," Saalmann says. "The brain instead selectively focuses on, or attends to, the people and objects most relevant to our behavior at the time and filters out the rest."