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Who has never heard or said: "It's so hard to concentrate!" or "You're not paying enough attention!". Attention is a complex cognitive function which is essential for human behavior. Attention is a selection process for an external (sound, image, smell...) or internal (thoughts) event which has to be maintained at a certain level of awareness. It is not a stable but rather a fluctuating skill. It isn't continuously sustained and is often unconsciously let up on during a task.

Different types of attention

The phasic alert

A gunshot or thunder will automatically draw your attention. The so-called phasic alert allows to maintain a certain degree of vigilance. Your capacity to concentrate highly depends on changes in the environment or in yourself (noise, stress, concern, tiredness, disruptive thoughts, etc.).

Attention can also be voluntary.

If for a walk around the city, you have chosen to wear a pair of shoes that hurt then you will focus all your attention on finding somewhere pleasant to sit down. This is how you will find a bench in a park. 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). This is where we begin to focus our attention.

Selective or focused attentionĀ 

At all times, a certain amount of information from our environment reaches your sensory receptors (sounds, smells, etc.). It is impossible to process in detail all the information you perceive. Among all this information, the selective or focused attention selects the information that should be processed in priority, according to relevance in the situation at hand or needs in a given context. Selective attention enables you to focus on an item while mentally identifying and distinguishing the non-relevant information, without having to seek actual isolation to do so. If you are going mushroom picking you will focus your attention on the ground and ignore all further information.

Shared or divided attention

There are many routine situations requiring you to perform two tasks simultaneously, such as having a conversation while driving home. Dividing your attentional resources is an essential skill to master such situations. However, 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.

Factors altering our attention skills

Aging frequently impairs the speed of information processing capacities, which reduce the capacities for selective attention. The capacity to resist interferences also becomes particularly faulty in aged people, who are therefore much less efficient when two tasks have to be carried out simultaneously. Some aspects of attention may be altered by factors such as fatigue, stress, alcohol and drugs.

Attention disorders

Attention deficit disorders, which are often diagnosed in children, can also be found in adults. Someone suffering from such disorders (with or without hyperactivity i.e. ADHD) will find it extremely difficult to focus on something, will get constantly distracted by external or internal events, and present compulsive behaviors and difficulties to stand still. These are neurological disorders which are influenced heredity or environment. ADHD is often found in children, especially boys, and can explain certain behaviors resulting from a lack of attention in their early school years. However, the diagnosis should be done by a professional as the above described behaviors may often turn out to be completely normal.

In daily life

Most brain activities require a lot of attention, whether it is to memorize information, to understand a text, or to find a certain thing. All intellectual activities require attention, either to be generally vigilant, to focus on something in particular, or to divide your concentration among different activities.


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