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How Our Attention Works

Attention is generally defined as our ability to selectively focus on one thing, idea, or task while filtering out other distractions. Another way to describe attention is selective concentration. Attention is the function of our brain that properly allocates our processing resources. There are many ways to describe different types of attention, today we will look at five of them:

Focused attention: Focused attention is commonly thought of as attentiveness. It is our ability to focus on one thing while excluding other things in our environment, real world examples of this are when we are studying or driving.

Sustained attention: Our ability to maintain a steady response during nonstop and repetitive activity is referred to as sustained attention. It is also defined as the ability to concentrate on one task for a continuous amount of time without being distracted, for instance staying attentive during a long meeting.

Selective attention: When you are able to “select” what you pay attention to, you are using your selective attention. This refers to the conscious act of focusing your attention, in other words, your ability to avoid distractions from both external (e.g. noise) and internal (e.g. thoughts) stimuli. A good example of selective attention is being able to focus on a friend’s voice in a loud and crowded room.

Alternating attention: When you shift your focus of attention and move between different tasks having different levels of required comprehension you are practicing alternating attention. An example of alternating attention is reading a recipe (learning) and then executing the recipe (doing).

Divided attention: Most of us are familiar with divided attention, also known as multitasking, which is our ability to respond simultaneously to multiple tasks. When we are able to process two or more responses or react to two or more different demands simultaneously, we call upon our divided attention skills. There are an abundance of real world examples to highlight divided attention: checking email while listening in on a meeting, talking with house guests while preparing a meal, and the list goes on.

Like any of our cognitive skills, our attention improves with practice. Improving our attention helps us process more information efficiently. If memory controls the bucket where our thoughts get stored, then attention is the hose that fills the bucket. One supplement that increases attention is caffeine and theanine capsules.