In Pursuit of Focused Attention

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As humans, we all use different types of attention to attend to both internal and external stimuli in our everyday lives. In psychology, attention is used to describe the concentration of awareness on phenomenon to the exclusion of other stimuli. Concentration of awareness can either be automatic or controlled, depending on the type of processing employed to elicit attention.

To better understand how attention actually works, attention has often been compared to a highlighter. In a sea of text, a highlighter is used to make certain portions of text stand out more than the rest of the text. Similarly in a sea of competing stimuli, attention causes us to selectively focus our interest, whilst ignoring competing information and stimuli, on certain specifics in our environment. However, not all attention is the same. Mateer’s Hierarchical Attention Model differentiates between attention, categorizing it as divided, sustained, selective or alternating in nature. Although there are various types of attention, today’s post will concentrate specifically on breaking down one type, namely Focused Attention.

Definition

Focused attention refers to a top-down cognitive process that is dependent on information in memory. Unlike automatic, bottom-up cognitive processing that is triggered by environmental stimuli, focused attention is more cognitively demanding as it requires intentional effort and may interfere with other mental processes.

Think back to when you first learned how to drive a car, or type on a keyboard. Starting out, the skill was new so it required you to use a great deal of focused attention to concentrate your awareness of your actions to complete the learned task. You rely heavily on remembering how to switch gears, look at your side mirrors, indicate effectively (in the case of a driving a car); or the various combination of commands that you need to interact with the software on your computer screen and where the letters are placed to be able to type out sentences. However, as you continued to practice the action, through repetition, the amount of focused attention required to complete the action decreased, because the action was no longer novel (new).

Eventually the amount of focused attention required became so little that you were able to add the action to the list of other bottom-up, automatic cognitive processes that require less attentional focus. How would you know, though? Well, you might notice that you were able to drive or even reverse park into a tricky spot while listening to an enjoyable tune, or type paraphrased notes in class while the professor lectures from a PowerPoint presentation. In either situation, so long as the surrounding environment remains routine, one is able to execute more complex attention processes without running into many problems.

Focused Attention in Everyday Life

Whether you are a student or working professional, welding focused attention effectively is an important skill to have. However, with the ever increasing avenues for distraction in today’s world, it is becoming more and more difficult to concentrate our entire focus on a single stimulus. So difficult, in fact, that we have seen a rise in the popularity of “productivity” software and Do Not Disturb features for our phones, computers, classrooms, office spaces and beyond.

Significant deficiencies in attention can make getting through daily activities even more challenging and the person less efficient. Aside from the normal losses that may occur every now and then, sustained deficiencies in attentional focus may arise at various stages of a person’s lifespan. The most commonly known disorders associated with and characterized by poor focus is Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD). However, Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, dementia and heminegligence due to brain injury or stroke are also known to feature loss of attentional focus.

Focused Attention Rehabilitation

Despite the challenges that one may face from experiencing an attentional deficit, the human brain is not a hardwired, fixed and immutable organ. Research shows that our brains are malleable, meaning that they can change and re-organize themselves to regain function through alternative pathways. This process is called neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity encourages dramatic healing, change, growth, and adaptation. It is a process that is useful for both those with identifiable attentional disorders, as well as those who are looking to sharpen brain function in their day-to-day lives and/or be proactive about preventing cognitive decline in the future. There are several ways in which one can effectively encourage neuroplasticity in their brain, namely: through exercise and diet, meditation, and neurofeedback training. Although the results may vary from person to person, and from one neuroplasticity activity to another; research stresses the importance of repetition. Repeated experience in practicing mental focus helps the brain and nervous system implement the necessary changes needed to facilitate the process of neural reorganization.

Summary

In conclusion, attention is a foundationally important cognitive skill to have for everyday mental processing. Some people may experience difficulties that go beyond their control and require additional effort to overcome. Some people may not. Regardless of which camp you fall, research shows that by purposely practicing mental engagement like focused attention, we all can harness the power of neuroplasticity by improving our brain’s adaptation capabilities.

References

Cherry, K. (2018). How psychologists define attention. Retrieved February 14, 2019, from verywellmind.com: https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-attention-2795009

Hale, J. (2018). The benefits of focused attention. Retrieved February 7, 2019, from PsychCentral: https://psychcentral.com/blog/the-benefits-of-focused-attention/

Qudddusi, M. A. (2019). Focused attention and mental meditation in psychology: Common attention issues and disorders. Retrieved February 7, 2019, from The Scientific World: https://www.scientificworldinfo.com/2019/01/focused-attention-and-mental-meditation-in-psychology.html#.XCv_2z3QdYs.reddit

UHN Staff. (2018). Neuroplasticity: Your brain’s marvellous ability to reengineer itself. Retrieved February 21, 2019, from University Health News Daily: https://universityhealthnews.com/daily/memory/neuroplasticity-your-brains-marvelous-ability-to-reengineer-itself/

Dr. M. Arnold Muller

Dr. M. Arnold Muller

Dr. M. Arnold Muller is a licensed School and Clinical Psychologist currently based in Toronto, Ontario, with 31 years of practice experience in two countries. Prior to his time in Canada, he spent the first half of his career in South Africa. Dr. Muller has a Ph.D. with specialization in Psychotherapy from the University of Pretoria, and a Masters Degree in Clinical Psychology. He also has a second Masters Degree in Practical Theology from the University of Stellenbosch.

Dr. Muller has worked in many settings including school boards, addiction centres, correctional institutions, the military, churches, and private practices. Spending time in these organizations has allowed him to gain an astounding amount of experience in psychological assessment, diagnosis, and treatment plan preparation and application.

Dr. Muller also has training and exposure to Neurofeedback Training, Somatic Experiencing, crisis intervention, conflict resolution and managing cultural differences. In his spare time, you can find him hiking, travelling, working on his photography, poetry, and spending time with his family and friends.

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