The Role of Attention
Attention is necessary in nearly all our daily tasks. It enables you to focus on the work at hand, learn data, and understand information, written or oral, and think about something. Your capacity to concentrate highly depends on changes in the environment or in yourself (noise, stress, concern, tiredness, disruptive thoughts, etc.). Shifting attention can be made willingly (for instance looking out for something or focus on something) or automatically (a sudden noise draws your attention for instance).
Attention capacities may be really strong if you can concentrate on something by cutting by allowing you to concentrate in an extremely noisy environment, like an open plan office setting. You can also divide your attention between several activities. For instance you can drive and at the same time have a discussion with your passenger. But when your attention is divided on several tasks, it requires more brain resources. Aging implies a decreasing in attention resources and a higher sensitivity to inference, which results in people being less efficient with age, on multiple simultaneous tasks.
Attention is the also brain process necessary for learning. Think about it: in order to learn anything, you have to pay enough attention to what experts or teachers have to say or have enough attention to read a book so that the information and new knowledge can be memorized. Without attention, there would be no new material to memorize or master!
Have you ever found it difficult to remain focused during a long speech or presentation or to solve a problem when there was too much going on around you? We've all been there. No one is able to stay perfectly focused for any long period of time-it's physically impossible. However, while there might be nothing that can keep us from falling asleep in the middle of a boring opera, it is possible to improve our attention capabilities and ability to focus-and HAPPYneuron will show you how. Like any other mental skill.such as remembering or doing math in your head.you can increase your ability to focus and to pay attention if you work on those skills. That is precisely what you will find in the HAPPYneuron program: a variety of games, each with multiple challenge levels, scientifically designed to improve your attention and focusing skills.
To fully benefit from these exercises, it is recommended that you find a nice, quiet place to do them and give them your full attention. Whatever you do, don't try to rush through these exercises or to do them all in one sitting! As you do the exercises, if you feel your focus start to drift significantly, stop and do something else and come back to them later. Trying to forge ahead when your mind is tired doesn't do your brain cells any good.
Improving and Increasing Your Attention Skills
It's clear that all these different kinds of attention are essential to our daily lives and happiness, and as a result, each one requires rigorous training. That's what the HAPPYneuron training program is for, and thanks to the varied exercises and difficulty levels, you'll soon be able to boost your attention and focusing abilities!
We've all been through times when we haven't been able to focus on the task at hand or have found ourselves drifting off and daydreaming while something else was going on. But why does this happen? What are "attention" and "focus" exactly, and how do they work? How can we improve them?
Attention and Focus
The terms attention and focus are often used interchangeable, but do they refer to the same thing? Surprisingly, the answer is no. Although attention and focus are interdependent and complementary to one another, the mechanics of each process are significantly different.
Attention relies on the sensory receptors in our brain that process hearing, sight, smell, touch, and taste. Attention corresponds to the way the mind processes an external event (a sound, image, smell) or an internal event (a thought or feeling) and then sustains this event at a certain level of awareness. For example, when you see someone on a stage and hear them singing a song that reminds you of your childhood, you pay attention.
Focus, on the other hand, is a process that requires a higher degree of this kind of awareness. Its role is to make an abstraction of non-relevant data to block out the unnecessary background noise of the people sitting next to you unwrapping a piece of candy or of the heads of the people in front of you. Therefore it can drastically reduce the scope of the field of attention necessary for a given situation. Focusing is a willful act, one that maintains attention at its highest level. These processes are interdependent: the more focused you are on something, the less aware you are of what is going on around you; and if you are very aware of everything that is going on around you, you will find it very difficult to focus on something in particular.
The Various Components of Attention
Attention is a complex cognitive function and is a major area of interest in neuropsychology and cognitive psychology and with good reason. It is absolutely necessary to the correct cognitive functioning of all individuals. As we will describe below, there are several components to the phenomenon of attention.
Selective or focused attention
At all times, a certain number of information from our environment reach our sensory receptors (sounds, smells, etc.). It is impossible to process in detail all the information that reach you. Therefore, they are part of a competitive process. The selective or focused attention selects the information that should be processed in priority, according to their relevance in the situation at hand or what you need in a given context, among all the information that reach you. Selective attention enables you to focus on an item while mentally discriminating all the non-relevant information, without having to physically separate from them. It is therefore absolutely necessary to action and to global cognitive processes.
For instance, it would enable your visual system to not only process and analyze automatically a visual scene, but also to be truly aware of it. Selective attention then can be physically perceived by gaze orientation, or the physical posture of head and sometimes upper body towards the relevant piece of information.
A good level of selective attention implies knowing how to discriminate the useless information and how to resist to interferences they may produce. In some people suffering from a high distraction level, attention is easily caught by irrelevant items. Therefore, to be focused, they have to reduce the number of environment stimuli that could distract them from being focused – for instance they may have to find a quiet place to be able to really listen to something carefully.
Exercises where you have to find the odd one out, or on the contrary, a target item among distracting elements enable you to evaluate this type of attention.
In human beings, the development of auditory attention is much more precocious than visual attention as it starts at the intra-uterine stage of our lives!
Shared or divided attention
The capacity to divide your attention i.e. to share it between several activities is crucial the simultaneous achievement of several tasks. It requires a logical distribution of your attention resources according to the requirements of each activity.
Routine situation where you have to perform two tasks at the same time, such as having a conversation while driving home require very few attention capacities. It is the same for things in which you have a high level of expertise. On the contrary, when you are faced with unusual situations (or activities for which you have a low level of expertise) such as driving in a place you have never been before and trying to find your way to a given location while talking to the passenger, the allocation of attention resources will be more difficult to plan and implement. In the same way, the higher the number of items you have to focus on, the more you will need attention resources.
Sustained attention, vigilance
Sustained attention is implied when you have to maintain a certain level of attention on a long time span, and in a continuous manner. It is particularly implied in activities with a regular and abundant flow of information, such as driving for instance, which does require an active process.
It is different from vigilance, that does not imply any continuous active process but only maintaining the level of awareness at a sufficient level so that you may react to a few events, that may occur at random during a monotonous activity. The perfect example is fishing : you can wait for hours on end, but then you will need to react quickly and adequately when the fish bites.
Attention is strongly dependent on what is happening in your environment (external factors) but also to what is happening inside you: your mood, motivation, priorities, fields of interest…The attention alerts enable you to manage these factors.
- The tonic alert, also called wakefulness, especially during the first part of your day, can be combined with sustained attention to enable you to carry out physical activities that may last a bit.
- The phasic alert is a brutal and temporary change in wakefulness because of an event in the environment (somebody enters the room, there is a strong noise outside, etc.). This event will un-imply you from the activity at hand for a certain amount of time, according to the importance of the event. If this event is not important for you, you will be able to skip it rapidly thanks to mechanics of inhibition, and you will find yourself fully implied in your on-going activity again.
The capacity to easily involve, release, and then re-involve your attention is linked to the flexibility of attention, that is necessary in cases when you have to process information alternatively, and therefore skip from one information source to another. Learning to control one’s attention is therefore a crucial asset for anyone.
Some aspects of attention may be altered by factors such as fatigue, stress, alcohol and drugs. Below are a list of the main attention disorders and their causes.
Aging frequently impairs the speed of information processing capacities, which reduce the capacities for selective attention. Researches have shown that the capacity to resist interferences was particularly faulty in aged people, who are therefore much less efficient when two tasks have to be carried out simultaneously. Thus, while a 20-year old will experience no difficulty to study while music is played in the background, a 60-year old will find it quite tricky.
Some people are hyperactive or suffer from attention deficit disorders. This shows frequently through a deficit of the flexibility of attention: the person will find it extremely difficult to focus on something, and will get constantly distracted by external events (smells, noises, visual events) or internal (his/her own thoughts). Because of the dysfunction of the inhibition mechanisms, this person takes into account irrelevant information and experiences difficulty in focusing on the activity at hand, being constantly called upon by other stimuli.
It is necessary to teach these individuals (most often children) to develop their attention and focus capacities at an early age, in an autonomous and sustainable manner. Recent Canadian studies have shown how important regular cognitive training sessions are to treat these attention disorders.
Issues in involving, releasing and re-involving attention
Troubles can appear at each of these 3 levels: involving, releasing and re-involving attention.
- People suffering from involvement disorders cannot commit themselves into an activity, even if they like it, and they often give the impression that they are interested in nothing, which is wrong.
- Releasing disorders cause an excessive focus (that may look like an obsession to an observer) on a given activity or item. People suffering from tinnitus for instance cannot inhibit the continuous hum they hear.
- People with re-involvement disorders find it difficult to re-involve their attention on the activity at hand when it has been interrupted by an interfering event, even if this event is irrelevant to what they are doing.
After a severe cranial trauma, attention disorders are frequently encountered. They generally induce a reduction in the speed of information processing. Studies specifically show that shared attention suffers from a deficit, whereas focused attention capacities are relatively spared (good resistance to interferences). One rehabilitation method for shared attention consists in having the patient carry out two tasks at the same time. At the beginning, tasks are very simple (clap the hands while saying the alphabet), then they get more and more complex (drive on a simulator while having a phone conversation).
Orienting attention: automatic or controlled process?
If you read carefully the presentation of the various types of attention, you will see that it can be automatic, and it can be controlled. It is automatic (i.e. extremely quick and not accessible to awareness) when attention is guided by an external stimulation. This is exogenous attention.
In other cases, orienting your attention can be controlled, or made willingly, i.e. your attention is monitored and guided by yourself. It is therefore a rather slow process, partly accessible to awareness, and that consume a great deal of attention resources. This is called endogenous attention.
Thus, for instance, exogenous orientation is at stake when your attention is drawn to a sudden thunder lightning in the sky. But if you start staring at the sky to look out for stars, then you control your attention, it is endogenous.
It is interesting to try and control processes that are usually automatic. In neuro-spychology, there is a famous test called STROOP test. It consists in reading aloud « BLUE », « YELLOW », « ORANGE »… or say the printing color, knowing that the color may or may not be the color corresponding to the word. For instance, if you choose to say the printing color, and when faced to « YELLOW », the automatic process would be to access automatically to reading and meaning of words, and then say « yellow » rather than « blue ». But the aim of the exercise is precisely to train you to control an automatic process and inhibit the “yellow” answer you would normally have given.