If 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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 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 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 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.
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.
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.
Focus on one thing at the time (if you find it hard to switch between tasks or multitask)
Eliminate distractions in your environment
Take a break every once and a while
Moderate exercise weekly
Ensuring enough sleep
Use attention span techniques
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.