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?
If you carefully read the presentation of the various types of attention, you will see that it 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.