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How your attention works

By Jasper25 March 2020

attention cognitive skillIf you’re thinking about attention, you are probably imagining yourself in a situation where you have to focus on something for a while. Like you are focused on reading this article right now. But that is just a small part of what attention actually is, your attention does much more than that. Without attention, your brain wouldn’t even be able to function as it would get overloaded. So, what are attention and concentration? How does this actually work? And how to improve your attention span? In this article, we’ll explain everything you need to know about attention.

What is attention?

Attention as cognitive skill is the process of choosing and focusing on a relevant stimulus while ignoring other perceivable information. Your brain receives both internal stimuli, such as your own thoughts, as well as external stimuli like seeing or hearing things around you. By filtering out irrelevant stimuli, while concentrating on relevant stimuli, your attention enables you to perform everyday tasks.

attention brain overloadWhy is attention important?

The cognitive ability to pay attention is critical to learn, achieve goals and perform complicated to everyday tasks. Attention not only prevents your mind from wandering in all directions, but it also prevents your brain from getting overloaded by all the information it receives.
Imagine your brain without the ability to pay attention, it would have to process every single bit of information it receives through your senses and from within our body. Such as the light and colors from your surroundings, every smell in the room, every piece of clothing that touches your body, the sign that you are starting to get hungry etc. etc. This would cause your brain to become overloaded. Without attention, you wouldn’t be able to achieve anything.
Whether you are trying to read a book on the bus, recalling a memory or simply think of a single subject at the time, your brain wouldn’t be able to do this without attention.


The difference between passive and active attention:

There are all kinds of stimuli your brain receives that are regulated by your attention. The stimuli that your attention processes are divided in passive and active attention. Sometimes you are focusing on a specific stimulus such as listening to a person, and still, your attention gets lost for a moment because of loud noise. The original focus would be active attention, while the distraction would be passive attention.

  • Passive attention

With passive attention, we mean the stimuli that reach your attention because they stand out from their environment. This can be a strong smell when you pass by a garbage can, the difference in temperature when you leave your home or noises you might hear while reading this text. Although you do not focus on these stimuli, you still notice them.

  • Active attention

With active attention, we mean the stimuli that reach your attention voluntary. These are stimuli your attention receives because you are focusing on them like you are focusing to read this article right now. Active attention involves the effort to receive specific stimuli and requires mental energy and the ability to filter out stimuli.

active or passive attention


Types of attention

While a lot of people misunderstand attention as the ability to focus, attention is actually more than that.
Focusing on one thing while ignoring irrelevant stimuli, like you do when you are having a conversation with someone, is just one form of attention. Attention can be divided into 4 types, which are all forms of active attention:

Selective attentionsellective attention

When most people think about what attention is, they actually mean selective attention. Selective attention is the process of trying to focus on a specific stimulus, while trying to block irrelevant stimuli.
A common example is when you are trying to have a conversation with someone in a crowded place, like a restaurant. While a lot of people around you are talking, you are trying to focus on the voice of the person you are having a conversation with.

Divided attention

Divided attention is the process of performing two or more tasks simultaneously and attention is required to perform both or all these tasks. Neither of the tasks is dropped to carry out the other. Situations that require divided attention are also called multi-tasking. The extent to which you can perform tasks at multiple tasks at once depends on the level of divided attention. For example, some people will find it hard to make a call and clean their room simultaneously while others won’t have any trouble to do so.

Sustained attentionsustained attention

Sustained attention is the ability to focus on a specific stimulus, task or event in our environment for a prolonged time. Sustained attention makes it possible to focus as long as needed to finish what you are doing, even when surrounded by distracting stimuli. This type of attention is also known as the attention span. The extent to which you can sustain your attention depends on a lot of factors, such as the task or situation you are trying to focus on, the distracting stimuli in your environment and your energy level. It is of course easier to keep your focus on something you enjoy than trying to stay focused on doing your taxes.

alternating attentionAlternating attention

Alternating attention is the ability to switch between tasks that require different cognitive skills. This type of attention makes it possible to stop one task to perform another and then be able to switch back and forth between these tasks. An example is when you are reading a book and someone asks you a question, you stop reading to answer the question and then continue to read.
The big difference between divided- and alternated attention is that divided attention is responsible for performing multiple tasks at the same time. While alternated attention is responsible for switching between tasks that require different cognitive skills.


Loss of attention (distractibility)

In order to focus on an important stimulus, we need to ignore and “filter” the irrelevant stimuli that might distract us. For each type of attention, distractions can lead to loss of attention and cause our brain to process the wrong stimuli that our senses receive. Whether it is the selective- or the divided attention. While you’re performing a task, you can experience the loss of attention. This can be caused by both internal- and external distractions:

External distractions

The obvious causes of attention loss are external distractions. That one colleague that talks with a high pitched voice, a bad smell from a garbage can or the light of the sun that shines in your eyes. They are all forms of external distractions. External distractions are stimuli your brain receives through your senses about external information. As already mentioned, this can be sound, smell, sight or even taste and touch.

Internal distractions

Another cause of attention loss can be caused by internal distractions. Internal distractions are distractions that come from within. These distractions are generated when you have random fleeting thoughts, when you are worrying, because of emotional states, physiological states etc. An example is when you are working on a Friday afternoon and you are trying to focus on your work, while your thoughts keep wandering off to your plans for the weekend.
internal external distractions

Constantly focused or not?

When switching between tasks, you might think you’re just switching for a second, while getting right back into focus after. But this is actually not true, our brains are designed to get distracted every once and a while. Between focussing on one or more tasks, your attention has short moments where it gets distracted. These short moments have a function, because your brain pauses and scans your environment at that moment outside your primary point of attention. Unconsciously, you are monitoring your environment to see if there might be something important happening. This is a function your cognition has maintained from the prehistoric time, where you had to monitor your environment for danger.

Duration of attentionattention span duration

So how long is the average attention span? There actually isn’t an easy answer to this question. Besides that, there are different attention types, there are a lot of other internal- and external factors that might affect the attention span of the existing attention types.
The harder tasks are, the more effort it takes to stay focused on it. And when you have to perform a task you don’t like, it's usually to keep focus. For someone who likes to play games it is easier to stay focused on a game for a longer period of time than someone who has to do taxes.

How to improve your attention span?

By stimulating your brain to focus on tasks that require your attention, you are able to improve your attention span. Besides improving your cognitive ability to focus, there are simple ways to improve your attention span and focus by changing your environment. For example, you can improve your attention by:
  • Focus on one thing at the time (if you find it hard to switch between tasks or multitask)improve attention

  • Eliminate distractions in your environment

  • Take a break every once and a while

  • Moderate exercise weekly

  • Healthy nutrition

  • Ensuring enough sleep

  • Use attention span techniques

  • Do brain training exercises that stimulate your attention span



So, attention is more than just focusing on something. While you aren’t always aware of it, your brain constantly filters out both internal- and external stimuli to make it possible for you to perform tasks.
Passive attention filters distractions unconsciously, while active attention filters them intentionally. There are 4 types of attention: selective attention, divided attention, sustained attention and alternated attention.
The duration of your attention span can be affected by lots of factors, such as how much you enjoy a given task.
Both internal- and external distractions can affect your attention span. If you’ve read this article from top to bottom at once, you have strong sustained attention. If you find it hard to stay focused, you can improve your attention span by limiting internal- and external distractions.