Some people seem to be able to do all kinds of things at the same time, while others have trouble to keep their mind focused on a single task. What makes this difference? Before we explain how this works we ask you to watch this video. The goal of the video: count how many times the team in white passes the ball around. Is your attention good enough to keep track?
And? Did you correctly count the number of passes given by the white team? And did you also notice the dancing bear? Don’t worry if you have missed the dancing bear. Research shows that a lot of people have missed the bear the first time they saw the video. Why? Because your attention was not looking for a bear. Because of the specific instruction to count to number of passes given by the white team your attention was directed to that specific event. This is called "selective attention". Your brain filters all other information in order for you to only focus on one event. This is not necessarily a bad characteristic of your brain. On the contrary, this “selective attention” is needed for a large number of tasks. When you try to learn a new skill you will only succeed when you focus specifically on this one task and are not distracted by other events.
But sometimes this selective attention is not helping us. This is when we want to use “divided attention” instead. Divided attention can be actively regulated and takes place in our prefrontal cortex (especially in the medial and lateral regions). For example, divided attention is very useful when we drive a car. When driving it is useful to pay attention to multiple objects.