Characterizing individual variations in attention

Ethos Equipe Pegase

Attention is described as the ability to process selectively one aspect of the environment over others and involves multiple processes by which the nervous system apprehends and organizes sensory input and generates coordinated behaviour. It is a core aspect of cognition.
In order to be able to characterize potential individual differences in attention characteristics, and the factors involved, we have developed standardized tests based on spontaneous attention. In horses, two different tests, performed in the home environment, have been developed: “a visual attention test” where the horse is confronted to a moving visual stimulus and an “auditory test” where novel sounds are broadcasted. Social and non-social attention tests have also been developed for European starlings.

Horses present individual differences in attention and distractibility

Tests on more than 60 horses have revealed clear individual differences that are relatively stable over time (6 months at least) and predictive of learning and other attentional tasks. Attention towards the visual stimulus is predictive of attention in other situations whereas an increased interest towards the acoustic stimulations is predictive of the horses’ distractibility in other tests and at work. This is not totally surprising as most common distractors in daily life are auditory and as contrary to visual stimuli, sound stimuli can be perceived whatever an individual’s activity. This is to our knowledge the first ‘real-world’ estimate of an animal’s distractibility in its home environment that could potentially be adapted for humans.

There are mutual relationships between attention and welfare

The welfare state clearly impacts attentional skills in horses:

  • “depressed” horses show a lower interest towards acoustic stimuli;
  • anaemic horses spend most of their time-budget oriented towards a wall, thus away from external stimulations;
  • horses with chronic pain (back disorders as measured by manual examination and electromyography) exhibit a lower spontaneous attention towards the environment.