Verified by World Mental Healthcare Association

Attention is the cognitive process of selectively focusing on specific stimuli or information while filtering out irrelevant or distracting factors. It plays a crucial role in various aspects of daily life, including learning, problem-solving, and effective communication.

What is Attention?

Attention is the ability to concentrate 1 and allocate mental resources toward a specific task, object, or event. It encompasses factors such as intensity and duration which are influenced by individual differences, arousal levels, and personal interest.

Attention consists of three key 2 components: alertness, which signifies being mentally awake and responsive; selectivity, which involves focusing on specific stimuli while disregarding others; and processing capacity, which refers to efficiently allocating mental resources for information processing.

Focus, on the other hand, goes beyond mere attention 3 . It represents an elevated state of concentration where one actively directs their attention towards a particular thought or action. For instance, during a lecture, focusing involves not only paying attention by being present, looking at the speaker, and listening to their words but also applying concentrated mental effort to delve deeper into the content being presented.

Characteristics of Attention

The characteristics 4 of attention are as follows:

  • Attention is constantly changing, adapting, and shifting based on the stimuli and demands of the environment.
  • Attention is an active and central aspect of our conscious experience, shaping how we perceive, process, and interact with the world around us.
  • Attention allows us to selectively focus on specific stimuli or information, enabling us to prioritize and allocate mental resources effectively.
  • Attention operates continuously, although its intensity and focus may vary.
  • Both internal factors, such as thoughts and moods, and external factors, such as distractions or environmental cues, can impact attention span.

Causes of Poor Attention

There can be several causes 2 of poor attention, such as:

  1. External stimuli such as noise, visual clutter, or interruptions can divert attention away from a task or activity.
  2. High levels of stress or anxiety can make it difficult to focus and concentrate. Worries, intrusive thoughts, or an overwhelming workload can impact attention.
  3. Sleep deprivation or poor sleep quality can lead to decreased alertness, difficulty concentrating, and impaired attention.
  4. Mental health conditions such as 5 Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or substance use can affect in concentration and sustaining focus for a longer time.
  5. Inadequate intake or poor absorption of specific vitamins 6 , like vitamin B12, can significantly impact cognitive function, including attention and concentration.

Why is Attention Important for Mental Health Functioning

Attention span can have significant impacts 7 on mental health functioning, such as:

  • Difficulties in attention span can impede productivity, task completion, and academic or professional performance.
  • Poor attention can lead to increased stress, frustration, and reduced self-esteem, negatively impacting overall mental well-being.
  • Challenges in sustaining attention can affect interpersonal relationships and communication, contributing to misunderstandings and conflicts.
  • Inadequate processing of attention and concentration can hinder the ability to prioritize, plan, and achieve long-term goals, affecting personal growth and success.
  • Difficulties in sustaining attention can also hinder cognitive processes like memory, problem-solving, and decision-making, leading to overall cognitive impairment.

While poor attention span itself may not directly cause mental health disorders 8 , it can contribute to the development or exacerbation of certain conditions, such as:

1. Depression

Poor attention can contribute to decreased engagement 9 , reduced productivity, and challenges in task completion, potentially leading to feelings of hopelessness, low self-esteem, and overwhelm, which are characteristics of depression.

Read More About Depression Here

2. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

Difficulty in attention is believed to result from difficulties in regulating attentional processes in the brain. These difficulties can manifest as inattentiveness, distractibility, and an inability to sustain focus on tasks or activities, which are core symptoms 10 of ADHD.

3. Substance Use Disorder

Poor attention span can be both a contributing factor 11 and a consequence of substance use disorders. Some individuals may use substances as a way to self-medicate attention problems, seeking temporary relief from difficulties in focusing.

4. Conduct Disorder

Attentional problems can be associated with conduct disorder 12 , particularly in terms of impulse control and adherence to rules and social norms. Difficulties in sustaining attention can contribute to the developing signs of conduct disorder, such as impulsive, aggressive, and antisocial behaviors, and a strong disregard for consequences.

Read More About Conduct Disorder Here

5. Learning Disabilities

Difficulties in sustaining attention and focus can interfere with information processing, memory, and comprehension, which are essential for learning. Poor attention can make it harder to acquire new skills, follow instructions, and complete tasks, exacerbating the challenges already associated with learning disabilities 13 , such as dyslexia.

How to Increase Attention Span

Improving attention span is crucial for enhancing productivity 14 , facilitating optimal learning, and achieving a heightened state of mental focus. To improve your attention span, prioritize tasks, divide them into smaller manageable segments, establish a space free from distractions, and incorporate practices like mindfulness, meditation, and reading. Through consistent effort and patience, you can steadily cultivate the capacity to sustain focus, resulting in more efficient and impactful work.


Attention is a vital cognitive process that allows us to selectively focus on relevant information while filtering out distractions. It plays a crucial role in various aspects of our daily lives, including learning, problem-solving, and effective communication.

By understanding the characteristics and components of attention, we can enhance our ability to manage and direct our attention span, leading to improved cognitive functioning and overall performance.

At A Glance

  1. Attention is the cognitive process of selectively focusing on specific stimuli or information while filtering out irrelevant or distracting factors.
  2. The characteristics of attention are, its changing and active nature, selectivity, and continuity.
  3. External stimuli, ADHD, sleep deprivation, stress, anxiety, and vitamin deficiency play a crucial role in poor attention span.
  4. Attention span can have significant impacts on mental health functioning including productivity, personal growth, interpersonal relationships, and decision-making.
  5. Mental health disorders such as depression, ADHD, learning disabilities, substance use, and anxiety can be related to poor attention span.
  6. To increase attention span, practice strategies such as minimizing distractions, breaking tasks into smaller chunks, and incorporating mindfulness techniques.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

1. What is the average person’s attention span?

The average human attention span is estimated to be around 8.25 seconds.

2. Is low attention span ADHD?

Having a low attention span alone does not necessarily indicate a diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), poor attention is a key symptom of ADHD.

3. Does reading increase attention span?

Engaging in regular reading, exercises the brain’s attention networks, helping to strengthen and improve sustained focus over time.

4. How does mental health affect attention?

Various mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, and ADHD, substance abuse can significantly impact an individual’s ability to sustain attention and concentration.

👇 References:
  1.  Krauzlis, R. J., Wang, L., Yu, G., & Katz, L. N. (2023). What is attention?. Wiley interdisciplinary reviews. Cognitive science14(1), e1570. []
  2.  Tremolada, M., Taverna, L., & Bonichini, S. (2019). Which Factors Influence Attentional Functions? Attention Assessed by KiTAP in 105 6-to-10-Year-Old Children. Behavioral sciences (Basel, Switzerland)9(1), 7. [][]
  3.  Tsotsos J. K. (2019). Attention: The Messy Reality. The Yale journal of biology and medicine92(1), 127–137. []
  4.  Hazeltine, E., Grafton, S. T., & Ivry, R. (1997). Attention and stimulus characteristics determine the locus of motor-sequence encoding. A PET study. Brain : a journal of neurology120 ( Pt 1), 123–140. []
  5. COMMON MENTAL HEALTH DISORDERS. (2011).; British Psychological Society. Available from: []
  6. Tardy, A. L., Pouteau, E., Marquez, D., Yilmaz, C., & Scholey, A. (2020). Vitamins and Minerals for Energy, Fatigue and Cognition: A Narrative Review of the Biochemical and Clinical Evidence. Nutrients12(1), 228. []
  7.  Burns, R. D., Pfledderer, C. D., & Fu, Y. (2019). Adolescent Health Behaviors and Difficulty Concentrating, Remembering, and Making Decisions. American journal of lifestyle medicine15(6), 664–672. []
  8.  Russell, E., & Patrick, K. (2018). Mental health needs our attention. CMAJ : Canadian Medical Association journal = journal de l’Association medicale canadienne190(2), E34. []
  9.  Keller, A. S., Leikauf, J. E., Holt-Gosselin, B., Staveland, B. R., & Williams, L. M. (2019). Paying attention to attention in depression. Translational psychiatry9(1), 279. []
  10.  Magnus, W., Nazir, S., Anilkumar, A. C., & Shaban, K. (2020). Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. PubMed; StatPearls Publishing. Available from: []
  11.  Groenman, A. P., Oosterlaan, J., Rommelse, N., Franke, B., Roeyers, H., Oades, R. D., Sergeant, J. A., Buitelaar, J. K., & Faraone, S. V. (2013). Substance use disorders in adolescents with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: a 4-year follow-up study. Addiction (Abingdon, England)108(8), 1503–1511. []
  12.  Faraone, S. V., Biederman, J., Jetton, J. G., & Tsuang, M. T. (1997). Attention deficit disorder and conduct disorder: longitudinal evidence for a familial subtype. Psychological medicine27(2), 291–300. []
  13.  Dominguez, O., & Carugno, P. (2020). Learning Disability. PubMed; StatPearls Publishing. Available from: []
  14.  Barton, A. C., Sheen, J., & Byrne, L. K. (2020). Immediate Attention Enhancement and Restoration From Interactive and Immersive Technologies: A Scoping Review. Frontiers in psychology11, 2050. []