In psychology, attention refers to the cognitive and behavioral process of concentrating our awareness on a particular object, situation or phenomenon while excluding other intelligible stimuli in the environment.
What Is Attention?
Attention, often referred to as awareness, is our cognitive ability to select and focus on specific stimuli. It is considered as a limited cognitive resource which allows us to concentrate our consciousness on a specific information out of numerous concurrently present and perceivable objects. It is believed to be a limited resource because our cognition can be focused only on a finite amount of stimuli. The process involves various aspects such as utilizing perceptions effectively, identifying emotional significance of such perceptions and managing multiple perceptions. It is an important process of selective concentration on relevant information that significantly impacts and influences our daily functioning. It enables us to identify, understand, regulate and control our thoughts and behaviors. It is also associated with several psychological concepts like cognitive load, memory, vision, learning1 and social interactions. Although it is a limited resource, we can learn to improve and strengthen it through cognitive training.
According to a recent 2020 study 2, “Attention is the important ability to flexibly control limited computational resources.” This phenomenon is closely linked to awareness, executive control, vigilance, learning and saliency. This concept is studied widely in neuroscience, psychology, neuropsychology, cognitive neuroscience and education. It is a resource which not only helps us delve deep into something that is important to us, but also avoids all other outside interference into our train of thoughts while we are engaged, all at the same time. It is as useful and efficient a tool as any other, for a human being. It influences our perception towards external and internal stimuli. We perceive and read into any matter very differently when it is with proper awareness and focus. Without it, one finds it difficult to understand the details and misses out on a great deal of information. It can even pose as distracting, when we are devoid of our attention.
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Attention is the behavioral and cognitive process of selectively concentrating on a specific aspect of any information, while not paying any heed or getting distracted by any other information in general. It is a cognitive asset of our human consciousness that not only defines the structure of our memory but also impacts the behavioral genetics of a human being. It is a resource that is short-lived both in duration and quality. Hence, its most efficient usage at any given time is the only way to get the best out of it. As per a 2019 study 3, “Attention is the basis of human cognition and can be trained in favor of mental flexibility, learning and self-consciousness.”
Although it plays a critical role in the human experience and how we utilize and focus our awareness, we are unable to gain complete control over how we can effectively direct this cognitive ability. This can often lead to a lack of focus, difficulty concentrating, and distractibility which can impair our ability to perform daily tasks, strengthen relationships and carry out conversations. Moreover, our awareness can spontaneously, instinctively or involuntarily be attracted or directed to certain stimuli, such as loud sounds or a sudden possible threat without any conscious thought. The concept involves the process of focusing our awareness on the current experience as being excessively focused on thoughts about the past or the future can lead to inattentiveness 4. However, this cognitive ability is influenced by internal and external factors as numerous events tend to occur simultaneously in our environment. This is why we need to be selective about implementing this limited cognitive resource.
Types Of Attention
Primarily, there are two major types of attention, namely active and passive. The active form is a complex, multidimensional process which allows us to select important stimuli to focus on and constantly maintain cognitive focus to perform crucial functions and tasks. It also helps us to identify what is unimportant and avoid that. The passive form, on the other hand, is an involuntary and unconscious action influenced by environmental factors, like pungent scents, strong lights or loud sounds. While the active type might involve alertness, curiosity, interest, concentration and effort, the passive form is effortless. Researchers 5 believe that “active attention enhances neural responses related to passive shifts of attention.”
However, there are several other forms of this cognitive ability that are existent in human beings. Different situations and mindset calls for different forms of this phenomenon. They are –
1. Sustained Attention
Also commonly known as concentration, this is the type of attention that allows a person to focus on a subject matter 6 for a long, continuous and uninterrupted period of time. This form is essential in seeing through any important task till the end and to ensure complete efficiency.
2. Selective Attention
This helps to maintain 7 two things simultaneously – it allows us to be selectively attentive to a certain stimulus around us, drawing our full focus. At the same time, it ignores all other things that might draw our awareness. This process of brushing aside all external stimuli, which may include thoughts in our own head, just as much as any other external disturbances to ‘selectively’ pin-point on one task, is made possible only by this type.
3. Alternating Attention
This form is where one can toggle his/her awareness and focus from one task to another, based on the demands and importance of the tasks at hand. This form is fundamental for successful and fruitful multi-tasking, which is a rare quality in humans in its own right.
As this cognitive ability is a limited resource, using it to its fullest potential is what determines its value.
4. Focused Attention
This branch is commonly found in emergency situations and random outbreaks of external factors like a loud sound, a pungent smell or a blinding light. Mostly involving the usage of our olfactory, tactile, audio and visual senses, it takes place whenever these suddenly occur and all our utmost awareness and focus is required at the given situation, in a quick span of time.
5. Divided Or Limited Attention
Very similar to selective attention in its methods, this form also functions on the grounds of multi-tasking. Just that, instead of being able to devote pure focus to different tasks, here this cognitive resource is divided among those different tasks, ultimately resulting in multi-tasking. Although divided among many tasks, the degree of awareness devoted can depend upon the urgency and importance of the task at hand.
The Science Behind Attention
A 2019 study states, “Humans have a finite number of neural resources with which to process the complexity of their surroundings. We can prioritise only some aspects of the environment while filtering out others because we have the cognitive ability to selectively devote our attention.” The variety of stimuli that can be found all around us attracts and demands our focus all in their own rights and in their own specific ways. This resource is entirely subjected to a human being’s intention. The pattern of usage and intensity marks how efficiently it is put to use, not any internal biology. In case of situations that are out of human control, certain traits and mechanisms play the deciding factor.
There is a popular experiment called “The Cocktail Party Effect”. In a party where there are loads of auditory, visual and tactile sensations active all around, it is seen that one can switch into focusing on one single person while zoning out all the other people present. This is a voluntary action of investing attention into something that the person intends to be attentive to, irrespective of the other demands. On the other hand, some stimuli like a booming sound at a party will automatically draw our awareness towards it, irrespective of whether we want to invest this resource on it or not. Our auditory filtering fails to encompass these particular arrays of situations and it draws our focus involuntarily.
The areas of the human brain that are involved in the process of this phenomenon constitute a huge network of neural structure, which make up an even larger brain area. Mainly composed of the ‘Frontal’, ‘Parietal’ and ‘Temporal’ regions of the brain, these components function differently for voluntary and involuntary responses to stimuli.
Factors Affecting Attention
A report from 2004 8 states the following factors, internal and external both, to have an immense effect on this cognitive asset and defines the very type of attention it will be attracting –
1. Personal Relevance
Humans are by default attracted to information which carry personal value to them. It generates genuine curiosity and leads to a sustained attraction being given to the subject.
2. Emotional Connect
Any subject-matter becomes exponentially important to a person if it has an emotional quotient attached to it. It becomes a priority and indispensable at the same time.
3. The Attraction Of ‘New’
Everyone loves new, shiny things which are tasteful. People are very responsive to the stimulus of niche, classy objects which not only draws our awareness very efficiently but also has a long retention ability in our minds.
4. Breaking Monotony
‘Change Blindness’ helps bring in a new spontaneity and revitalizes our brain functions as it finds a new task to analyze and operate on. Change Blindness 9 is the tendency of a viewer to overlook a minute change or flicker in a visual. This whole process is a huge center of attention and is very much used in professional fields.
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Our visual senses are one of the most basic ways to perceive attention yet it remains among the most lucrative ways to attract attention as well. Using contrasting shades or anything striking to the eyes automatically draws our awareness. The very purpose of highlighter pens is a good example of this. We use bright, catchy neon luminescent colors to mark sentences in long paragraphs so that our focus goes to those specific parts first.
Ways To Train And Improve Attention
Attention as a cognitive asset demands a lot of streamlined usage to attain the best efficiency when put to use. There are a number of ways to better and improve it as a skill set entirely. With age, the human brain’s capacity to retain information and be attentive falters simultaneously. This, however, can be improved upon by activities like cognitive training and brain exercises. This has a proven record of better processing skills, memory power and longer attention span in adults, as per a 2020 study 10.
Getting an ample amount of sleep is a mandate for a healthy attention intensity. The human body requires proper sleep for a healthy facilitating attention span.It is a medical fact that sleep and awareness share a diametric relationship 11, where proper sleep is necessary for being effectively attentive at a given age of a human being. At the same time, intense attentional usage helps incur proper sleep in the individual.
Meditation has a widespread range of benefits and one of them is an increased attention span. Taking a break from the monotonous routine, slowing the pace of your mind and starting to take every second into account – This is a scientifically-backed 12 way of gaining peace of mind, hence a greater and intensified awareness and focus.
Knowledge about the field of attention as a fundamental human trait is something that has been restricted only to the professionals of medical science. Whereas, for something that is as common and prevalent, it deserves way more awareness and know-how, for sure. Such concepts as basic information should be at everyone’s disposal,so that all of us can choose the best way to utilize it. A better knowledge will ultimately lead to a generation who can increase their efficiency and improve upon their own skill set. Thus, increasing awareness about this cognitive resource is the way forward.
Attention At A Glance
- Attention is the cognitive and behavioral process of concentrating our awareness on particular stimuli.
- There are five types of attention, such as sustained, selective, alternating, focused, and divided or limited.
- The Frontal, Parietal and Temporal regions of the brain are closely associated with the power of attention of people.
- Personal relevance, contrast, and emotional connection are some of the significant factors that can affect attention.
- One can improve their attention with the help of brain exercises, cognitive training, meditation, and proper sleep.
- Lodge, J. M., & Harrison, W. J. (2019). The Role of Attention in Learning in the Digital Age. The Yale journal of biology and medicine, 92(1), 21–28.
- Lindsay G. W. (2020). Attention in Psychology, Neuroscience, and Machine Learning. Frontiers in computational neuroscience, 14, 29. https://doi.org/10.3389/fncom.2020.00029
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- Elisa, R. N., Balaguer-Ballester, E., & Parris, B. A. (2016). Inattention, Working Memory, and Goal Neglect in a Community Sample. Frontiers in psychology, 7, 1428. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01428
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- Fortenbaugh, F. C., DeGutis, J., & Esterman, M. (2017). Recent theoretical, neural, and clinical advances in sustained attention research. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1396(1), 70–91. https://doi.org/10.1111/nyas.13318
- Gomez-Ramirez, M., Hysaj, K., & Niebur, E. (2016). Neural mechanisms of selective attention in the somatosensory system. Journal of neurophysiology, 116(3), 1218–1231. https://doi.org/10.1152/jn.00637.2015
- Dörfler, V. (2004, December 2). (PDF) Factors of attention. ResearchGate. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/228479619_Factors_of_Attention
- Rizzo, M., Sparks, J., McEvoy, S., Viamonte, S., Kellison, I., & Vecera, S. P. (2009). Change blindness, aging, and cognition. Journal of clinical and experimental neuropsychology, 31(2), 245–256. https://doi.org/10.1080/13803390802279668
- Lai, Yi-Jung & Chang, Kang-Ming. (2020). Improvement of Attention in Elementary School Students through Fixation Focus Training Activity. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 17. 4780. 10.3390/ijerph17134780.
- Ma, N., Dinges, D. F., Basner, M., & Rao, H. (2015). How acute total sleep loss affects the attending brain: a meta-analysis of neuroimaging studies. Sleep, 38(2), 233–240. https://doi.org/10.5665/sleep.4404
- Basso, Julia & McHale, Alexandra & Ende, Victoria & Oberlin, Douglas & Suzuki, Wendy. (2018). Brief, daily meditation enhances attention, memory, mood, and emotional regulation in non-experienced meditators. Behavioural Brain Research. 356. 10.1016/j.bbr.2018.08.023.