© David Sponder, L.E.P.; BCBA; Floortime C3c
Director Sponderworks Children’s Services

Emotional Window Frames
The Reference Point as the Focus of Attention and the ‘Operating Window’ of Consciousness

At any given moment, our brains carry out thousands if not millions of operations at once.  Most of them operate automatically, such as breathing, blinking, regulating blood pressure, body temperature, making the thousands of muscle actions required to sit upright, focus attention, perceive, make rough appraisals of the environment, speak, or move through space, etc.

If we were aware of all of these things at once we’d be hopeless overwhelmed and bogged down.  Conscious awareness puts a frame around select reference points so the information is manageable and we can continue to spot important changes going on around us.

Many mental functions can be brought into the window of our conscious thought (we can think about our breathing and blinking and even bring them under control if we so choose).  Many neural operations are not available to our consciousness, such as how we can see the color red, or the myriad minor adjustments we make to our trunk muscles as we ride a bicycle.

One can loosely equate all of these operations with computer operating programs that the brain runs simultaneously.  On a computer, you can see the operations of programs in their operating “windows.” For instance, you might have a word processor going, a couple of open folders, a few documents, several websites, your email and other programs going all at once.  The computer is also monitoring its own heat, protecting you from viruses, and shifting loads between processors – all without your knowledge. When you click on one of the windows, it comes to the front and becomes the contents of your screen, and the rest of the windows go into the background.  The other programs remain running or “open,” but they are not in the foreground; they are not the main workspace.  An expert can open other windows that you don’t even know are there, that reveal code in the primary processors of the machine (the rough equivalent of our brain stem and cerebellar operations).  “Looking under the hood” like this is akin to the Radiologist using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to observe what goes on in our brain, while we perform various sorts of mental tasks.

Well, if the brain is compared to a computer, it is a computer that has many thousands of open windows running at the same time. They’re open in the sense that they are operating at the moment (not all neurological circuitry or operations run at the same time) – but “open” does not mean available to conscious awareness or certainly choice.  It does not mean that they are overt processes.  Most – are covert.

The open windows are interconnected and informing and updating the others constantly in what are called “continuous, recurrent feedback loops.” Thousands upon thousands of neural circuits, each performing subordinate functions of larger mental operations, must work together in synchrony. Neural synchrony allows the smooth and efficient flow of information between these hundreds of thousands of separate mini-systems so that the brain. The brain is therefore considered a dynamical, self-organizing, meta-system. The “coherence” and Synchrony” creates a “mind” that maintains a coherent and unified perception of reality.

Think about it:

  • We share many of the same neurological functions of all other animals. Evolution “conserves” what works, and, as species evolve – they don’t throw what works out and start anew (in the way that jet engines use little of the same technology or mechanisms that propeller engines use).  Yes, there are a lot of major differences.  We don’t fly and fish don’t breathe air. But evolution forms branches and lines, and phylogenetic conservation applies mainly to species of a similar branch or line of evolution. We preserved the same sort of seeing, hearing, feeling, balancing, smelling and tasting systems common to primates.  We see in color – as chimps do. We use ear drums, as chimps do, but snakes do not. Chimps experience many of the same emotions we do. We both like sweet things and we’re both omnivores.
  • Evolution builds on and adapts what it already has. We didn’t start brand new hearing or vision systems from our chimp ancestors.  As far as brains are concerned, evolution “tacks on” new mechanisms that solve problems of new evolutionary niches.  The new parts have to work with the ones already there. They have to sync up with the old system, or the other way around, or a combination of both.The parts that are already there function quite differently from each other.  Hearing works very differently than seeing and taste and pain perception.  Yet they all have to work together to give the animal a coherent and unified perception of reality.  The parts have to work together in synchrony, but they are made up of different forms of meat with different ways of processing (we can’t process sound and light in the same way for instance), and there are different lengths and types of neurons carrying signals at different rates of speed.  Long ago – species that preceded any of us had to process light, sound, chemicals (taste, smell), body position, etc. in a perceptual whole. So coherence is common to every organism – no matter how simple. Much of what we know about this we learned from sea snails.  The Neuroscientist Eric Kandel won a Nobel Prize for showing us how our brains form coherence in the same ways that sea snails do.
  • What makes us (neurologically and developmentally speaking) truly unique from chimps and every other animalis the degree of ourneural integration.” Chimps are quite smart and capable. They have a technological brain (they use tools and solve problems with objects and they have considerable knowledge of their botanical environment); they have remarkable social intelligence (their lives are full of intrigue, deception and manipulation), and they form social hierarchies where the bottom rungs are populated by the closest equivalent animals have to autism. Chimps have culture – they pass on information to other chimps, but not in the same way we do. For instance, the technological intelligence one chimp may have, say, knowledge and ability to use a stick to fish termites out from a termite nest – generally stays in that part of the chimp’s mind.  Another chimp may imitate and therefore learn. But the first chimp cannot use his social mind to think of teaching the second chimp, and the second chimp cannot use her social or technological mind to figure out that the first one uses the stick because he intends to get termites out of the nest. Therefore, the second chimp would never try to think of how to improve the method or think of another way to do it.
  • Because our brains can integrate modules more in scale, complexity and variation than other species, we have more vulnerability to breakdowns in the integration between neural models.
  • The general consensus in the neuroscience community is that autism is a “central coherence disorder.” Many believe that animals can also experience neurological disorders, including central coherence disorders, but their social systems don’t allow their survival, so they aren’t readily observed in the wild.  We have created such disorders in the laboratory by messing with their brains or depriving them of social experiences necessary to form coherent perceptual awareness.

So if the multitude of separate processors must function in synchrony together in order to form a coherent and singular perceptual whole – the flow of information between modules that do things very differently, and at very different rates of speed – must still be somehow “synchronized.” This “perceptual whole” exists inside the window of our current attentional frame. The “current attentional frame” is the window of our moment to moment conscious thought, and it is inside this frame that the reference points of our thinking exist.

Remediating the neurological deficits of autism involves facilitating the development of nonverbal mental mechanisms. It involves techniques designed to help the individual notice changes, form reference points, integrate the information and form a unique – not scripted response.

Attention functions like clicking on one of the computer’s windows. We teach people with autism how to form these windows with the right reference points in them.  This is quite an art because it is difficult to do, but the ability is a learned trait. We do it in similar, albeit slowed down and exaggerated ways that our models for learning did and do.

By teaching this foundational skill set – what Lev Vygotsky called the “Tools of Intelligence” and Steven Gutstein calls “The tools of Dynamic Intelligence,” we empower people with autism to learn on their own.  They can learn from the hundreds of thousands of learning opportunities all around us – personal and vicarious, and they no longer have to rely on “skill-by-skill” instruction that generalizes about as fast as Kandel’s sea snails.

While awake, we’re always operating within one of these conscious awareness window frames.  Attention clicks on the operating window and switches to click on others ones – but only one can be open at a time. We have “in the back of our minds other open windows, but our actions reflect the operation of only one at a time. Within any of the windows – thousands of mini-processors must sync up properly and stay that way. When they don’t, they form bottlenecks and glitches. You can see this in the many forms of “stuckness” that you see in individuals with autism. It is manifestation of neural incoherence. The system is out of sync.

We facilitate the neural mechanisms of synchronization not through language, but by strengthening the underlying perceptual input, motor output, attention and memory processes.  The tips at the end of this article represent some of the ways in which we do this. When we are able to SLOW DOWN and carefully MANAGE PERCEPTUAL INPUT and MOTOR OUTPUT DEMANDS – we facilitate neurally coherent states that allow for tracking, monitoring and selecting reference points coherently.

Clicking on Windows

How Volitional Attention Switching Works

I’m typing at the keyboard now – but the phone rings.  It’s my cousin.  He needs to talk to me.

Attentional Window Frame 1: My thoughts on this subject; my intentions for the reader; my concept of the reader’s interest and desire and ability to follow my train of thought, as well as the act of my typing – which robs far too much of my attention because I slept through typing class in high school.

The phone rings.

Attentional Window Frame 2: Switch.  The phone ringing was enough to break into my Attentional Window Frame 1.  This is because:

  1. My focus on Frame 1 wasn’t so strong that the phone ringing could not intrude.  That would be different if Frame 1 was “David is being attacked by a bear at the moment.”  In that frame, a Fight/Freeze or Flight attentional frame – hardly anything can intrude.
  2. I’m not autistic (despite what my wife thinks), so I can actually switch attentional windows based on changes that occur around me.  Women do this better than men.  They can switch their attention quickly and all the time – because they evolved to raise children.  They have to be able to do many things at once and they have to be able to also hear their baby not crying at the same time.  Men evolved to chase one animal for several days and then find their way home – which is why they are allergic to asking for directions. We evolved to tune out children.  Most of us men don’t hunt anymore– we just have basketball games to watch, and that causes temporary states of autism where we cannot attend to changes in our surroundings – especially the sound of female voices turning on and off. Men who work in the field of autism are surrounded by women who have come to believe that the Y chromosome is a birth defect. It is not.
  3. By switching temporarily to the phone, and the wonder of Caller ID, I saw that it was my cousin, whom I like to talk to.  And there was no basketball game on.

Attentional Window Frame 3: Sharing experience with my cousin. We exchange words that create mental representations that we share with words.  Emotional information is exchanged mainly through prosodic addition to the words.

Attentional Window Frame 4: She’s going on and on about a tiresome old issue so my mind loses interest and I have increased difficulty staying in Window 3.  I haven’t eaten in a while, so another window begs for my attention – my hunger. When I was still interested in what she had to say, I could keep Window 4 running in the background and concentrate on her conversation (Window 3), as we do with multiple open windows on our computer.  (We know the windows of consciousness available to us because they are stacked up in a cascade where we can see the corners of the ones in the background, and by clicking on another one – the selected one pops up to the front – which is equivalent to [the momentary window of] our conscious awareness).

The combination of waning interest in my cousin’s conversation and the growing loudness of my appestat (Window 4) keeps me shifting so much between those windows that I’m having trouble following her [not so] dynamic flow of thought.  Her conversation is getting repetitive, and change tends to keep attention alive.  Repetition and sameness tends to move windows to the background.

Attentional Window Frame 4a: I momentarily switch to this window: What I know about my cousin. If I told her that I wanted to eat – she’d expect me to take the phone into the kitchen and continue speaking. So I tell her that someone is at the door and that I’ll call her back.

Attentional Window Frame 5: Eating.  Most of the behaviors involved in this task are so well ingrained that I can do them automatically.  This allows the return of Window 1 – this article to retake the primary role.  I switch to Window 5 (the behaviors related to preparing and eating my food) only as long as I have to and return quickly to my more emotionally interesting Window 1. This is equivalent to walking and talking to some, and then, seeing a big rock in the way, momentarily focusing on walking. Once the rock is passed, your consciousness becomes refilled with your conversation.

Who does this clicking on the windows?

At any moment, thousands of things compete for our attention from the foreground and backgrounds of our environment, and from the internal and emotional (interoceptive) goings-on within us.  Remember the lunchroom example?  The so-called Neurotypicals involved in the conversation about Hawaii had a “shared ego” of the moment, which involved a shared window of attention and multiple attempts to share the same mental representations and points of reference.  Multiple efforts and behaviors were brought to bear to maintain this shared reference, this shared attention on a subject. The conversation formed a temporary system between its partners.

Something in our minds decides which window to click on at any moment.  The task is shared by several parts of the brain that manage attention, but the emotional connection, the part that decides what is most important, is generally thought to be the anterior portion of the cingulate.  Its job is to sift through the constant intrusion of multiple stimuli and form a frame around those that are important or ‘salient.’  The anterior cingulate cortex monitors performance in terms of potential reward value and [potential] costly mistake-making, which is why it plays such a primary role in selecting targets for attention.  Once it chooses a target, it also lets motor cortices know so they can pre-load potential responses, making us quicker responders.  This is how we can keep up in dynamical systems like conversations, where we respond with amazing speed to what keeps unfolding.  Since attentionthe window that comes to the front when we “click on” one of our programs can only hold a very limited amount of information, we have to “select out” a lot of other things, like the Oreck ‘Little Hero’ Canister Vacuum Cleaner hanging on the wall in the corner.

A front-to-back [or “sagittal”] cross-section of the brain shows why Neuroscientists long suspected that it played this role of attention target selection.  It straddles the top of the limbic cortices (the so-called “emotional brain” that concerns itself mainly with functions related to survival and well-being); the posterior section reaches back into the sensory cortices in the back of the brain, and; the dorsal or top portions of it interface with the prefrontal cortex, which handles motor output (attention can be viewed as “motor output in search of stimuli,” reference points, or perceptual input).

How do you teach non-verbal intelligence?