One of my favorite cartoon characters from childhood (and beyond) is Yosemite Sam. Some days I really relate to Sam! He’s always in a hurry and impulsive, which ultimately leads to his classic “misfires.” Yosemite Sam is a great illustration of several cognitive deficits we group together as executive functions! He is disorganized, his thoughts are scattered, and he acts impulsively without considering consequences. In the end, Sam just wastes bullets and shoots himself in the foot! Attention is the foundation of memory, learning, organization, and other cognitive skills, and Yosemite Sam demonstrates attention issues big time!
In fact, most of our other cognitive skills rely heavily upon intact attention to function optimally. Simplistically, you can’t remember or learn what you can’t pay attention to in the first place. One of the first treatment books I purchased as a new SLP was The Source for Executive Function Disorders by Susanne Phillips Keeley. In this book, the author likens human attention to a fuse box. I love that analogy & use it often when working with patients with cognitive difficulties. I frequently use the following scenario to help my patients understand the concept:
Let’s say you have several large appliances in your house – refrigerator, oven, microwave, television, stereo system, computer, etc. Everything works just fine if you are using one or two of those items at a time. Imagine that one day you are cooking on the range, the TV is blasting, the stereo is playing, and you just put a roast in the microwave to defrost. You decide you need more light to read your recipe, so you flip a switch that also draws from the same circuit – and everything goes dead. No light. No music. No TV. No defrosting or cooking. The circuit breaker has tripped!
Human attention functions in much the same way. We are all terribly proud of our ability to “multi-task” these days, but the reality is that something suffers when we attempt to do too much at one time. We only have so much attention to divide among multiple activities! Each task gets a smaller portion of our resources, and finally the system overloads and an attention break occurs — much like that tripped circuit breaker.
What consequences might we face if we are:
Texting while driving and a motorcycle pulls out in front of us?
Taking “just a minute” to check Facebook updates while sauce is cooking on the stove — and the smell of scorched food signals us that our minute stretched into half an hour? Or
Juggling multiple distractions while cutting a pineapple with a sharp knife during a party?
I can tell you what can happen in all but one of these scenarios. I don’t text while driving and am very thankful that “what if” is purely fictional. However, I recently burned the spaghetti sauce in my favorite pot, which will never be the same, and the pineapple incident resulted in a trip to the ER for stitches in the middle of my own birthday party.
So, no one is immune to attention deficits, but some of us are bothered by them more than others. Aging often exacerbates the problem, and stroke or acquired brain injury may create attention deficits in people at all stages of life. I often find that increased awareness of the role of attention in memory, learning, and safety during daily activities helps people understand the importance of reducing distractions and minimizing the number of tasks tackled at one time. Reading this blog could even be enough to make a difference for some people, and I would be thrilled if you would comment to let me know that it had! In other cases, the problem is more persistent or complicated and therapy may be needed to help develop individualized management strategies and exercises.
At the end of the day, Yosemite Sam’s attention issues are an integral part of what we find endearing about him. I am not sure where he falls on the attention continuum, but I would never want to change him! He is such a colorful character! His energy and, I suspect, our ability to relate to the pressure that leads him to misfire to his detriment are classic and will probably continue to entertain us for generations to come!
Cyndee Williams Bowen, SLP is owner and founder of Bowen Speech-Language Therapy, LLC in Clearwater, Florida. Her practice specializes in the assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of adults and adolescents with speech, language, voice, swallowing, cognitive, and related disorders. She has a special interest in working with patients with Parkinson’s Disease and is a certified provider of Lee Silverman Voice Treatment (LSVT) LOUD and eLOUD. You can learn more about the services provided at Bowen Speech-Language Therapy, LLC by visiting the company website, Facebook page, and following the @BowenSpeech handle on Twitter!