Cap­ture your horse’s at­ten­tion

By un­der­stand­ing your mount’s ca­pac­ity for vig­i­lance and ex­pand­ing your own aware­ness, you can im­prove your part­ner­ship— and your abil­ity to learn to­gether.

EQUUS - - Contents - By Janet L. Jones, PhD

By un­der­stand­ing your mount’s ca­pac­ity for vig­i­lance and ex­pand­ing your own aware­ness, you can im­prove your part­ner­ship---and your abil­ity to learn to­gether.

Some­times, it seems, your horse never misses a thing. “Ooh, what’s that?” “Look! A trailer!” “What a pretty mare…” “Hey, the feeed tru­u­uck…” That’s nat­u­ral, of course. Horses have sur­vived 55 mil­lion years of evo­lu­tion partly be­cause they at­tend to their sur­round­ings. The most sen­si­tive herd­mates lis­ten, watch and sniff---scout­ing the en­vi­ron­ment for any changes. If Big Mama lifts her head and pricks her ears, the oth­ers check to see what’s go­ing on. Some pas­ture bud­dies fol­low her gaze and check for them­selves; oth­ers sim­ply watch her re­sponse.

Brain sci­en­tists study at­ten­tion in species from hon­ey­bees to hu­mans. We find that sim­i­lar pro­cesses play a role in the at­ten­tional func­tions of most mam­malian brains. Th­ese par­al­lels let us spec­u­late re­gard­ing the horse, whose pow­ers of at­ten­tion are hard to test. Go ahead, try coax­ing a horse into a pound­ing brain scan­ner with­out se­da­tion. See what I mean?

In horses and hu­mans, “at­ten­tion” refers to many dif­fer­ent skills. Equine brains are en­gi­neered for vig­i­lance. They no­tice new sights and sounds, iden­tify changes, switch fo­cus from one item to an­other, and eval­u­ate for danger—--all at light­ning speed. Hu­man brains are much less vig­i­lant, but they’re bet­ter at ig­nor­ing dis­trac­tions and con­cen­trat­ing on lengthy tasks. Be­cause we ex­cel at the types of at­ten­tion that horses strug­gle with (and vice versa), the horse-hu­man team has far greater pow­ers of at­ten­tion than ei­ther species has alone. If you un­der­stand your mount’s at­ten­tional strengths, sharpen your own, and fos­ter mu­tual com­mu­ni­ca­tion, the two of you can ex­pand your aware­ness. And greater aware­ness to­ward each other leads to in­creased learn­ing for both of you.

In this ar­ti­cle, we con­sider how hu­man and equine brains main­tain vig­i­lance, alert to warn­ing sig­nals and ori­ent men­tal ca­pac­ity to­ward po­ten­tial dan­gers. We ap­ply this knowl­edge to the task of cap­tur­ing a horse’s at­ten­tion so that she can learn with greater ease and mas­tery. In a sec­ond in­stall­ment, we will ex­am­ine the abil­ity to ig­nore dis­trac­tions, di­rect at­ten­tion to safe en­ti­ties, and con­cen­trate on one task over time. We’ll ap­ply th­ese top­ics to the chal­lenge of main­tain­ing a horse’s at­ten­tion once we have cap­tured it.

INATTENTIO­NAL BLIND­NESS

Be­ing ego­cen­tric crea­tures, peo­ple tend to as­sume their cog­ni­tive pow­ers lie at the top of the heap. Are horses truly more vig­i­lant than we are? Cog­ni­tive sci­en­tists Daniel Si­mons and Christo­pher Chabris cre­ated a short video in which two bas­ket­balls were passed among six play­ers. Ob­servers were asked to count the num­ber of

times the balls were passed among three of the rapidly mov­ing play-ers. While each observer was count­ing passes, some­one dressed in a go­rilla suit walked through the game, stand­ing at the cen­ter of the ac­tion for five sec­onds.

A go­rilla is im­pos­si­ble to miss, right? It’s novel, un­ex­pected, large and cov­ered in thick, dark fur for good­ness’ sake! Yet al­most half of the ob­servers never saw it. Amazed, the re­searchers cre­ated a fol­low-up study in which the man in the go­rilla suit pounded on his chest dur­ing his five sec­onds at cen­ter stage. Again, half of the ob­servers missed the go­rilla. Hu­mans can fo­cus so in­tently on one as­pect of a task that we be­come blind to more ob­vi­ous parts of it. Horses? No way.

Si­mons and an­other col­league, David Levin, also asked view­ers to watch a short video in which two peo­ple are chat­ting over a meal. De­tails in the video change in­ex­pli­ca­bly: The scarf one per­son is wear­ing sud­denly dis­ap­pears then reap­pears. The plates on the ta­ble change color from red to white. 90 per­cent of view­ers failed to no­tice th­ese changes. A sec­ond set of view­ers were warned that the video con­tained changes in “ob­jects, body po­si­tion or cloth­ing.” Even with this heads-up, peo­ple missed more than 75 per­cent of the van­ish­ing scarves and chameleon plates.

Per­haps the most in­trigu­ing as­pect of inattentio­nal blind­ness is that peo­ple re­main confident de­spite their er­rors. When asked ahead of time whether they would no­tice scarves dis­ap­pear­ing or plates chang­ing color, 83 per­cent of peo­ple said yes. Yet only 11 per­cent of th­ese confident view­ers ac­tu­ally did. So, you are likely to miss dis­trac­tions that are not crit­i­cal to per­for­mance on a fo­cused task. But your horse is not go­ing to miss a go­rilla suit! She won’t ig­nore a sud­den change in the color of a jump pole or a fence rail that morphs from white plas­tic to brown wood. Horses con­stantly no­tice small changes that peo­ple do not see or hear. And when they do, han­dlers of­ten com­plain that the horses are shy­ing “at noth­ing.”

TAK­ING IT IN

At­ten­tion helps all species sort in­com­ing data. Bom­barded by our sur­round­ings, we need to know which items are im­por­tant and which items are not. A horse’s sen­sory or­gans take in co­pi­ous data and his brain in­stantly sorts it for danger.

With her head still, each of a horse’s ears lo­cal­izes sounds in a 180-de­gree range us­ing 10 in­de­pen­dent mus­cles for move­ment in ev­ery di­rec­tion. By con­trast, hu­man ears have three fee­ble pul­leys so that a few spe­cial folks can wiggle their ears as a party trick. Even the wig­glers can’t turn an ear. Horses also have the largest eye of any land mam­mal, view­ing a 350-de­gree range with­out mov­ing their heads. Our pal­try hu­man eyes are eight times smaller, with a range of about 90 degrees. No won­der your horse shies!

As in­com­ing data en­ters the brain, it is fil­tered by spe­cial­ized neu­rons. Is it food, wa­ter, danger? Let it through. Oth­er­wise, block it. Such de­ci­sions are un­con­scious, a func­tion of nor­mal at­ten­tion rather than pre­med­i­tated thought. The equine brain must be alert to a warn­ing sig­nal and flee the area tout suite. Mis­takes are fine; it’s bet­ter to run from mov­ing grasses that har­bor no preda­tors than to wait for more in­for­ma­tion while the lion launches his game of chase-and-pounce.

This bias for mis­takes al­lows equine neu­rons to be tuned to­ward very tiny changes in the ex­ter­nal world. The equine brain con­sid­ers ev­ery dis­trac­tion po­ten­tially im­por­tant, while the hu­man brain can af­ford to miss a few dis­trac­tions in fa­vor of stronger tun­ing for con­cen­tra­tion.

NEU­RAL TUN­ING

At­ten­tion de­pends on neu­ral tun­ing, a process that can oc­cur most any­where in the brain with the help of nat­u­ral chem­i­cals cooked up us­ing recipes writ­ten in our genes. Var­i­ous as­pects of at­ten­tion are me­di­ated by dopamine, acetyl­choline, nor­ep­i­neph­rine, cor­ti­sol and nico­tine. Yes, you read that right---your brain and your horse’s brain make nico­tine, just like

A go­rilla is im­pos­si­ble to miss, right? It’s novel, un­ex­pected, large, and cov­ered in thick, dark fur for good­ness’ sake! Yet al­most half of the ob­servers never saw it.

the kind found in to­bacco. They use it to me­di­ate vig­i­lance.

Sup­pose you and Star are out on a moun­tain trail. It’s nar­row, wooded and rocky, flanked by a ver­ti­cal fall on one side and an in­clin­ing cliff on the other. You are both vig­i­lant, pay­ing close at­ten­tion to the trail. Nat­u­ral nico­tine is cours­ing through your brain, and--be­cause she’s a horse and has greater vig­i­lance---even more so through hers. This nico­tine tur­bocharges the fir­ing po­ten­tial of neu­rons that rep­re­sent items of danger.

Sud­denly in the tense si­lence, a gray squir­rel chat­ters. Dopamine floods sev­eral ar­eas of Star’s brain and your own, flip­ping switches that alert you to peril. Neu­rons that are sen­si­tive to dopamine boost their fir­ing rate. Shots of nor­ep­i­neph­rine and cor­ti­sol pre­pare your bod­ies to run. Acetyl­choline ori­ents your brains to switch fo­cus to a par­tic­u­lar lo­ca­tion, but here the re­ac­tions di­verge: Star shies away from that lo­ca­tion be­cause her brain has a di­rect con­nec­tion to cells that cause rapid move­ment, but your brain has to slog through a bunch of cog­ni­tive quick­sand be­fore ac­tion is ini­ti­ated.

In this mo­ment, neu­rons in ar­eas de­voted to per­cep­tual in­for­ma­tion tune them­selves for pre­ci­sion. Those that rep­re­sent gray re­strict their vigil to the shade seen in most gray squir­rels. Brain cells sen­si­tive to other col­ors re­main snoring on the couch. Brain cells for shape limit their fir­ing pat­terns to curved tails and bulging eyes. Au­di­tory cells are primed for the rapid­fire sound of squir­rel chat­ter. Neu­rons in con­cep­tual ar­eas are hyped to con­vey the meaning of a chat­ter­ing squir­rel. All of th­ese highly spe­cial­ized net­works be­come ex­cited, seek­ing very pre­cise in­for­ma­tion and fir­ing much harder and faster than nor­mal when they find it.

As th­ese “squir­rel neu­rons” boost their fir­ing strength, they also in­hibit the strength of ir­rel­e­vant neu­rons nearby. The neu­rons for squir­rel gray tell

With her head still, each of a horse’s ears lo­cal­izes sounds in a 180de­gree range us­ing 10 in­de­pen­dent mus­cles for move­ment in ev­ery di­rec­tion. Neu­rons in con­cep­tual ar­eas are hyped to con­vey the meaning of a chat­ter­ing squir­rel.

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