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Jean-Philippe LACHAUX
Phone : +33-(0)4-72-13-89-13
Fax : +33-(0)4-72-13-89-01
Office n° : 225
Mail : jp.lachauxinserm.fr
Link :
Research Fields :

Taming attention

Attention is the selection, activation, facilitation of specific neural networks at the expense of others. It can occur in a reflex fashion, triggered by external or internal stimuli or under endogeneous control, by the so-called frontal lobe executive system, via top-down projections. I’m mostly interested by that second aspect. I believe that for each activity, be it reading an article, returning a tennis serve, listening to a math teacher, talking to a friend or enjoying a good meal, there are optimal attentional states, in which endogeneous attention acts by fine-tuning the balance between brain automatisms to achieve high-performance, high-quality subjective experience (that is, enjoying what we are doing) and a minimal sense of effort.

This theme has motivated my research for the last fifteen years. Everyday, from the moment I wake up to the moment I go back to bed, almost litterally, I try to understand 1) what optimal attentional states really are, at the neural and experiential level, 2) why they are so efficient, 3) what disrupts them and 4) how they can be achieved through training (it’s actually quite pleasurable !). I favor an approach focusing on what I call « microcognition », that is the study of cognitive states and neural processes at the finest time scale, down to the millisecond. This includes the careful analysis of subjective experience and cognitive strategies across fractions of seconds, namely : what an individual is really doing and feeling, « moment after moment ». It also includes a detailed analysis of brain dynamics that reveals the neural underpinnings of sensory, motor, cognitive, emotional automatisms, and their modulation by attention, again at the millisecond scale and not only on average, across large populations, but also and mostly, at the individual and single-trial level : one particular individual performing one particular cognitive act. You, lifting that cup of tea or reading that sentence, now.

Fifteen years ago, I found that high-frequency components (above 40 Hz) of intra-cerebral electroencephalography (iEEG) signals are a reliable index of neural processing, with the long sought-after millisecond/millimetric precision. Since then, and thanks to a fruitful collaboration with the epilepsy unit of Philippe Kahane in Grenoble, I have used that index to adress my four research questions, 1) to 4). This has led me to study the effect of attention on several of the processes that keep us busy all day long, including reading, memory, active vision, imagery, movement selection, and the inner mental life that has been associated with the so-called « default-network », each time with the fantastic window that intra-cerebral EEG offers on micro-cognition. This has been done through classical brain imaging paradigms but also more importantly, in real-life situations thanks to a system called BrainTV, which enables to visualize brain activity online as the participant interacts freely with her environment. Thanks to BrainTV, we can now very precisely monitor online the attentional state of the participants; we know where to look, and what to expect.

My long-term ambition is to translate the latest responses to my four initial questions, obtained in hundreds of labs across the world, into practical training sessions which can help people to attain more optimal attentional states whatever they are doing : learning how to ‘tame’ attention in short, thanks to cognitive neuroscience. School is a good start, and with some colleagues, we are starting a large-scale project to promote the teaching of attention in classrooms. Eventually, we will keep up learning to extend this approach much beyond schools, and may be provide a tiny bit of help to make the big struggle for life slightly more enjoyable.

You can download my research articles, and learn more about BrainTV, here ( www.braintv.org )

Glossary :

Intra-cerebral EEG : a recording technique that implies the insertion of electrodes into a patient’s brain to identify pathological neural networks. It is widely used as a preliminary step to cure drug-resistant epilepsy.

Executive system : a large-scale neural network in charge of driving and monitoring most high-level cognitive processes, such as decision-making, cognitive control, plannification and mental simulation. It is believed to sit mostly in the frontal lobe, the anterior part of the brain.

Top-down projections : neuronal connections that enable the executive system to influence lower-level brain regions, in charge of sensory and motor processing, for instance.

Projects :
P2 P7 P1
Internal Collaborators :

External Collaborators :