Attention is the ability to choose and concentrate on relevant stimuli. Attention is one of the foundational cognitive processes we have as humans. It is essential for human behavior and engagement in daily activities.
Without it, we would be unable to hold conversations, walk around a messy room, or engage with the environment around us.
Attention skills enable us to focus on the work at hand, learn and understand both written and oral information, and think about a given subject. Strong attentional capacities may be required in order to concentrate on something in an extremely noisy environment, like an open plan office setting. We can also divide our attention between several activities. For instance, we can drive while having a conversation with a passenger. But when attention is divided between several tasks, it requires more brain resources. Aging is correlated with a decrease in attention resources and a higher sensitivity to interference, which results in people being less efficient with age on multiple simultaneous tasks.
Attention is also necessary for learning new concepts. Think about it: in order to learn anything, we have to be alert and present to what experts or teachers tell us, or concentrate our comprehension skills as we read a book so that the information and new knowledge can be memorized. Without attention, we could never memorize or master new material!
William James, psychologist, and philosopher, wrote in his 1890 book, ‘The Principles of Psychology,’ that attention is “the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what may seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought…It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others.”
In essence, attention is the ability to actively process specific information in the environment while tuning out other details. Attention is limited in capacity and duration. Without the ability to “tune out” information, sensations, and perceptions that are not relevant at the moment, you would expel too much of your energy on tasks that were not important for survival. It is why it is essential to have ways to effectively manage our attentional reservoirs. To ensure that we only focus on important things and ignore distractions, which is truly a crucial skill of human survival.
The terms attention and focus are often used interchangeably, but do they refer to the same thing? Surprisingly, the answer is no. Although attention and focus are interdependent and complementary to one another, the mechanics of each process are significantly different.
Attention relies on the sensory receptors in our brain that process hearing, sight, smell, touch, and taste. Attention corresponds to the way the mind processes an external event (a sound, image, smell) or an internal event (a thought or feeling) and then sustains this event at a certain level of awareness. For example, when you see and hear someone on a stage singing a song that reminds you of your childhood, you pay attention.
Focus, on the other hand, is a process that requires a higher degree of awareness. Its role is to ignore non-relevant data, to block out the unnecessary background noise of someone next to you unwrapping a piece of candy or of the heads of the people in front of you. It can therefore drastically reduce our field of attention for a given situation. Focusing is a willful act, one that maintains attention at its highest level. The processes are interdependent: the more focused you are on something, the less aware you are of what is going on around you; conversely, if you are very aware of everything that is going on around you, you will find it very difficult to focus on something in particular.
As researchers have studied attention, they have been able to classify it into several different sub-categories. Currently, the most accepted model for the attention sub-components is the hierarchical model from Sohlberg and Mateer (1987, 1989). According to this model, attention can be divided into the following parts:
Phasic Alert (arousal)
Your capacity to concentrate highly depends on the changes in the environment or in yourself (noise, stress, concern, tiredness, disruptive thoughts, etc.). The phasic alert allows you to maintain a certain degree of vigilance to survive. An example of this would be you stop what you are doing after you hear a thunderclap, or see a bright light, or feel a vibration.
Refers to our ability to respond to discrete visual, auditory, or tactile stimuli. An example of this is watching tv.
The ability to direct and focus cognitive activity on specific stimuli. An example of this would be studying for an exam or test.
The ability to select and focus on a particular stimulus or activity while simultaneously suppressing irrelevant or distracting information. An example of this is focusing on a single conversation while in a crowded room.
The ability to switch between tasks, stop one task to participate in another, and then return to the initial task. An example of this would be returning books on the shelf in a library. You have to read a book title and then locate the spot it should be on the shelf.
The ability to process more than one piece of information at a time. An example of this would be driving a car.
Individuals who have had a TBI often have deficits in divided attention. This is caused by the limited capacity for cognitive processes after TBI. When the system becomes overloaded, relevant information can be missed.
Attention stimuli are encoded by using three different neuroanatomical systems (Posner and Petersen (1990)). They are the following:
Alert System (Reticular Activating System (RAS))
This system is mainly in charge of the Arousal and Sustained Attention skills. It uses areas of the brain like the frontal areas, limbic systems, the thalamus, and basal ganglia to gather information.
Orientation System (Posterior Attentional System (PAS))
This system controls and uses Focused and Selective Attention skills to encode visual stimuli. The brain areas correlated to this system are the superior colliculus, the posterior parietal cortex, and the lateral pulvinar nucleus of the thalamus.
Executive System (Anterior Attentional System (AAS))
This system uses Selective Attention, Sustained Attention, and Divided Attention to help encode stimuli. It’s closely related to the prefrontal dorsolateral cortex, the orbitofrontal cortex, the anterior cingulate cortex, the supplementary motor area, and the neostriatum (striate nucleus).
Every cognitive skill, including attention, can be trained and may experience improvement. Neuroplasticity is the foundation of how cognitive therapy is conducted. Neuroplasticity is the theory of the malleability of the brain and its neural connections. The concept is that the neurons in the brain can be strengthened by challenging and engaging them. Just like going to the gym to get physically strong, by frequently training skills involved with attention, the brain’s ability to pay attention may become stronger.
HappyNeuron was founded by neuroscience experts who wanted to create a better way to deliver personalized cognitive therapy. Our tool’s purpose is to help clinicians revolutionize the way they are conducting cognitive rehabilitation or remediation sessions. With our adaptable attention exercises, you can customize each exercise to meet the attention deficits your patient is exhibiting. The program then stores all of the information for you. This way you can track and show progression.
The key to improving sustained attention is adequate and consistent training. HappyNeuron‘s training tools can help both individuals and professionals optimize this function. It only takes a few minutes a day to see long-lasting improvements.
To fully benefit from these exercises, medical administrators should recommend finding a nice, quiet place to complete the training so patients can devote their full attention. Have your patients take their time with these exercises, and avoid doing them all in one sitting! If any of your patients start to feel their focus drift significantly, have them stop and do something else before returning to them later. Trying to forge ahead when the mind is tired doesn’t help brain cells in any way.
Classics in the History of Psychology. The Principles of Psychology, William James (1890).
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