Attention Disorders

Dance with the Fireflies - Sample

This is Part Three of our three-part series on Attention. Click here to read Part One: What Role Does Attention Play in Daily Life? or Part Two: Improving and Increasing Your Attention Skills.


Attention is an important cognitive ability. People rely on attention for driving, preparing meals, handling tools safely, performing tasks at work, studying, and paying attention in conversations with friends. When attention is impaired, people are at risk of injury, social faux-pas, and feeling overwhelmed or not understanding concepts because they are not able to access and retain all of the information they need. In the motion graphic to the right, attention is needed to recognize patterns. This task would be difficult for someone that has attention complications.

Some aspects of attention may be altered by factors such as fatigue, stress, alcohol, and drugs. Below is a list of the main causes of attention deficits and disorders.


Aging frequently impairs the speed of our information processing capacities and reduces our capacity for selective attention. Researchers have shown that the ability to resist interference is particularly compromised in seniors, who are much less efficient when carrying out two tasks simultaneously. Thus, while a 20-year old will have no trouble studying while music is being played in the background, a 60-year old will likely find this same task to be quite difficult.

Hyperactivity (ADHD)

Some people are hyperactive or suffer from attention deficit disorders. This is frequently manifested by a deficit in attention flexibility: the person will find it extremely difficult to focus, and will be easily distracted by external (smells, noises, visual events) or internal (his/her own thoughts) events. Because of the dysfunction of inhibitory mechanisms, the person will attend to irrelevant information and experiences, making it difficult to focus on the activity at hand, as they are constantly called upon by other stimuli.

It is necessary to teach these individuals (most often children) to develop strategies to maintain their attention and focus in an autonomous and sustainable manner. Recent studies by Canadian researchers have shown how important regular cognitive training sessions are to ameliorate these attention deficit disorders.

Cranial trauma

Attention disorders are frequently encountered after severe cranial trauma and generally induce a reduction in the speed of information processing. Studies[1] specifically show that shared attention suffers from a deficit, whereas focused attention capacities are generally spared (good resistance to interference). One method for restoring shared attention consists of having the patient carry out two tasks at the same time. The rehabilitation begins with very simple tasks (clapping hands while saying the alphabet), which become increasingly complex as the therapy progresses (driving with a simulator while having a phone conversation).

Difficulties in engaging, releasing, and re-engaging attention

Difficulties can appear at each of these 3 levels: engaging, releasing and re-engaging attention.


  • People suffering from engagement disorders cannot commit themselves to an activity, even if it’s something they enjoy. Though they often appear to be completely lacking in interest, this is not actually the case.
  • Disorders involving attention release lead to excessive focus on a given activity or item (this may look like an obsession to an observer). For instance, people suffering from tinnitus cannot inhibit the continuous hum they hear.

People with re-engagement disorders find it difficult to re-engage their attention once it has been interrupted by an interfering event, even if the event is irrelevant to what they are doing.

Orienting attention: automatic or controlled process?

Attention can be automatic or controlled. Attention is automatic (i.e. extremely fast and unconscious) when it is guided by external stimulation. This is exogenous attention.


In other cases, orienting your attention can be controlled, or made willingly, i.e. you guide and monitor your attention. It is, therefore, a rather slow process that is partially conscious and consumes a great deal of attention resources. This is called endogenous attention.


Thus, for instance, exogenous orientation is at work when your attention is drawn to a sudden clap of thunder and bolt of lightning in the sky. But if you stare at the sky looking for stars, then you are controlling your attention; it is endogenous.


It is interesting to try and control processes that are usually automatic. In neuropsychology, there is a famous test called the Stroop test. It consists of reading the words for colors aloud “BLUE”, “YELLOW”, “ORANGE”… or saying the color that the words are printed in, knowing that the ink color may or may not match the word that it’s written with. For instance, you might need to say the ink color (blue) when faced with the word “YELLOW.” In this case, the automatic process would be to access areas involved in word recognition, reading and meaning, causing us to say “yellow” rather than “blue.” But, the aim of the exercise is to train yourself to control an automatic process and inhibit the “yellow” answer you would normally have given.

Are you looking for activities for clients with attention disorders?

If you are a healthcare provider, you may be interested in HappyNeuron Pro‘s activities for your clients with attention disorders. We offer 45+ exercises in English that touch upon key areas of cognition including language,  mental calculation, visuo-spatial skills, verbal reasoning, memory, executive functioning, processing speed, auditory processing and visual attention. You are able to try HappyNeuron Pro completely free with our Free Trial!


We also offer free worksheets which you can download and print to use with your clients during therapy sessions in addition to our digital content.


Try our attention exercises today!

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