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What Is Attention?

"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 behaviour and learning disorders such as hyperactivity and attention deficit disorder (ADD).

Attention has at least four components:

1.) Selective attention,
2.) Sustained attention,
3.) The ability to shift attention at will and
4.) Situational awareness.

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.

Selective 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 selective 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 selective 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 re-focus 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.

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).

Edublox programs develop selective attention, sustained attention, and the ability to shift attention at will.

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