Understanding Attention and Concentration

“Everyone knows what attention is,” wrote William James in his Principles of Psychology (1890). “It is the taking possession by the mind in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought… It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state.”

Attention or concentration (the words attention and concentration are used synonymously) is important to learning. Poor attention can be a key sign of behavior and learning disorders such as hyperactivity and attention deficit disorder (ADD).

Attention has at least five components

1.) Focused attention,
2.) Sustained attention,
3.) Shifting attention,
4.) Divided attention and
5.) Situational awareness.
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It is helpful to think of attention as the beam from a flashlight. The beam can be narrow or broad, it can be pointed in any direction, but it can only supply so much light at a time.

Focused attention is like pointing a narrow beam from your flashlight in the right direction. It refers to paying attention to the most important things in your environment while screening out the distractions. For example, you use focused attention when you have a conversation with one person at a party. You focus on what this single person is saying while screening out all the other conversations around you.

The degree of focused attention people have vary. Some people have low attentional levels, particularly if they have learning disorders like ADD. ADD can make it challenging for a learner to stay appropriately focused, and any distraction can cause a learner to lose focus.

Sustained attention is like holding your flashlight on the right thing for an extended period of time. It refers to how well someone can concentrate on a single thought over time.

Most healthy teenagers and adults are unable to sustain attention on one thing for more than about 20 minutes at a time, although they can choose repeatedly to refocus on the same thing. This ability to renew attention permits people to “pay attention” to things that last for more than a few minutes, such as long movies.

“Monkey mind” is an expression used for the inability to concentrate on a single thought — the mind is constantly chattering away endlessly creating noise and thus dimming its true power, abilities and therefore effectiveness.

• Shifting attention is like pointing your flashlight at a moving target. It refers to altering both the width and direction of your attention at will.

Imagine driving along a busy road. While keeping your eyes on the road, you also have to attend to cars on each side, pedestrians crossing the street, upcoming signs and changing traffic lights. In such a situation, accident-free driving is only possible because we are able to quickly shift our focus of attention, thereby temporarily “lightening up” representations of the most relevant objects in the visual scene.

It might — or might not — surprise you to learn that the parts of the brain that control eye movements are the same as those that shift attention.

Divided attention occurs when we are required to perform two (or more) tasks at the same time and attention is required for the performance of both (or all) the tasks. Examples include driving a car while carrying on a conversation with a passenger, or eating dinner while watching the news. When people are required to do more than one task at a time, performance on at least one of the tasks often declines. It is generally agreed that humans have a limited capacity to process information. When several tasks must be performed at the same time, the demands of the tasks may exceed processing capacity.

Research has shown a link between reading difficulties and deficiencies in divided attention. For example, studies have shown that dyslexics make more errors and need more time on Stroop tasks than non-dyslexics.

In psychology, Stroop effect refers to a phenomenon whereby it is easier to say the color of a word if it matches the semantic meaning of the word. For example, when the name of a color (e.g. “blue,” “green,” or “red”) is printed in a color not denoted by the name (e.g. the word “red” printed in blue ink instead of red ink), naming the color of the word takes longer and is more prone to errors than when the color of the ink matches the name of the color. Stroop tasks are commonly used to measure divided attention.

Situational awareness is like shining a broad beam from your flashlight all around you to help you decide what direction to go. It refers to the ability to size up the situation and make appropriate decisions.

Lacking or inadequate situation awareness has been identified as one of the primary factors in accidents attributed to human error. Thus, situation awareness is especially important in work domains where the information flow can be quite high and poor decisions may lead to serious consequences (e.g., piloting an airplane, functioning as a soldier, or treating critically ill or injured patients).

Improving attention

The good news is that attention can be improved with practice.

Assessing divided attention, Spelke, Hirst, and Niesser studied accuracy and response time of performance by participants reading short stories and writing down dictated words. The participants’ initial performance was very poor when both tasks were performed simultaneously. But, after participants practiced the tasks five days a week for 85 sessions, their performance in both tasks improved.

In June 2014, Edublox hosted the FUNtastic Brain Clinic in Singapore. Results of tests done at the Clinic were analyzed by the Center for Evaluation and Assessment (CEA) at the University of Pretoria and revealed a significant increase in concentration.

The program was presented to 27 learners, ages 10 to 12 over a five-day period, with seven or eight half-hour sessions per day. A control group comprising of 25 learners of similar age, gender and ability also completed the pre- and post-tests. This group did not attend the Clinic, but continued to go to school.

Results of the study show an improvement in focused attention, in just five days. On top of that the effect size is large, which lies beyond what Professor John Hattie calls the ‘hinge point’ or the ‘desired effects point’ in education.