NOTE: This article is based on a book chapter written in 2004.
Attention refers to the cognitive process of focusing the mind on a specific task goal. Coordination refers to the coupling of two or more things, such as the coupling of two limbs when walking.
The study of attention and the study of coordination have developed into two separate fields of research. But should they be separated?
Jean-Jeacques Temprado wrote a book chapter in 2008 titled “A dynamical approach to the interplay of attention and bimanual coordination”. The chapter discusses the similarities between the two fields of research and how they can be studied together.
Measuring attention and coordination
Attention is commonly measured by asking participants to respond to a probe (e.g., a beep). Faster responses are assumed to represent greater attention to the task. Conversely slower responses often indicate that attention resources are occupied elsewhere.
Coordination is often measured by assessing the coupling between two things. The most studied coordination tasks are bimanual coordination tasks. In these tasks, participants often display stable movement patterns when they are required to move limbs or fingers in the opposite direction (e.g., think about walking – both limbs move in unison but in opposite directions. This is a stable movement pattern). This is referred to as an “in-phase” pattern.
The same is also true when participants are required to move limbs or fingers in the same direction. However, this later movement pattern is less stable than the former. Less stable means that when this movement pattern is challenged, such as when performing at greater speeds, the movement pattern tends to revert to the most stable pattern (i.e., moving in opposite directions). This is referred to as an “anti-phase” pattern.
Movement stability provides an objective measurement of coordination.
What is the attentional cost of coordination?
Participants were asked to perform a bimanual coordination task. The task required participants to coordinate hand movements by moving a joystick. Whilst performing the task, participants sometimes had to respond to a beep (i.e., to measure attention). They were asked to either focus their attention on the (1) movement pattern, (2) the beep, or (3) the both the movement pattern and the beep. Participants also performed the task in a condition where there was no beep. This allowed for assessment of what baseline performance looked like.
A clear trend of results was evident. For the most stable movement pattern (in-phase pattern), movement stability was not affected by attention focus. In other words, regardless of whether attention was directed towards the movement pattern, the beep, or both the movement pattern and the beep, stability of the movement pattern remained constant.
For the anti-phase pattern, however, movement pattern stability declined when attention was directed to the beep. This means that when attention was directed away from the coordinative pattern, the pattern fluctuated to other more stable patterns more regularly.
Conversely, stability of the anti-phase pattern improved when attention was was directed towards the movement pattern.
What does this mean?
The take home message is that it is lest costly from an attention perspective to maintain coordination stability in a more stable pattern. In other words, stable movement patterns require minimal attention to maintain stability.
To further support this message, the book chapter discusses other studies that revealed similar results. Most notably, in a learning study, participants who specifically practiced the anti-phase movement pattern displayed reduced reaction times to a beep whilst performing the task following practice. Hence, by improving movement pattern stability (due to practice), the attention required to maintain stability decreased.