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What is attention, types and disturbances
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Attention is key for the optimal functioning of people, aiding the discrimination between stimuli and relevant and irrelevant events. However, there are also certain health problems related to this cognitive function. What is attention? What types are there? What variations exists? We will tell you now.

What is attention?

Attention could be defined as the ability to generate, select, manage and maintain an adequate level of stimulation to process the relevant information. Said in another way, attention is a process that takes place on a cognitive level (cognitive process), and that allows us to orientate ourselves towards the stimuli that are relevant, ignoring those that are not, in order to act in consequence.

 A series of characteristics exists that is implicit in its definition, and that is important to know in order to understand the importance of this cognitive function. Among these the ones that stand out are:

  • Amplitude: the quantity of information that we can pay attention to at the same time and the quantity of tasks that we can do simultaneously. It is important to keep in mind that attention is a limited resource and although you can pay attention to more than one thing at a time, there will come point where this is no longer possible.
  • Intensity: is understood as the amount of attention resources which are paying attention to a given stimulus. That is to say, the level of resources that we direct to a given stimulus can fluctuate, being able to carry out tasks practically without paying attention (automatic tasks) and others demanding high attention resources (controlled tasks).
  • Alternationg/Shifting: Alternating attention is the ability to be able to change the focus of attention from one event to another (alternating attention). That is to say, alternating attention happens when we do more than one activity at the same time and both activities demand the same type of cognitive resources. We therefore must change our focus from one to another, as paying attention to both simultaneously is not possible.
    The focal point can be divided according to its direction: external (stimuli that are made in the surroundings) or internal (stimuli that are made by the individual themselves), and according to its large amplitude (it allows various stimuli to be perceived at once) or wide amplitude (the individual can filter the unwanted stimuli. Meaning the individual blocks distractions to pay attention to one task).
  • Control: attention can be voluntary or involuntary. For voluntary attention the person must make a mental effort to mobilise it, processing the information coming in and maintaining it for the necessary amount of time to then give the most appropriate answer. That is to say, the individual controls and regulates the cognitive processes needed to do a mental task. On the other hand, there are stimuli that are capable of drawing our attention towards resources themselves, without any effort on our part, this is called involuntary or passive attention.

Attention acts, therefore, as a mechanism that controls how we direct resources in daily life, acting as a filter or selective bottle neck that allows us to focus on the relevant part of information. This allows attention resources to be directed towards a task to maximise learning and minimise making errors. See attention models and attention filters by Donald Broadbent and Anne Treisman.

What types of attention are there?

Attention is a general concept, but variations exist in its name when referring to more concrete and detailed aspects; these are usually understood as different types of attention. The most well-known types or classes of attention are:

  • Internal attention: the ability to use attention resources for your own mental processes and other interoceptive aspects.
  • External attention: gained from external stimuli and stimuli coming from the surroundings.
  • Open attention: accompanies motor responses that support and facilitate the act of paying attention, for example, turning the head towards the stimulus that we want to pay attention to.
  • Hidden attention: allows you to pay attention to stimuli without appearing to do so.
  • Selective attention or focused attention: ability to select and focus attention on a single stimulus, rejecting other irrelevant stimuli that can interfere in the process.
  • Divided attention: ability to focus attention on two or more tasks at the same time. For example, driving and listening to music at the same time.
  • Sustained attention: ability to maintain attention resources and respond correctly.
  • Visual attention: ability to pay attention to stimuli that are in our field of vision. This is related to spatial aspects.
  • Auditory attention: ability to pay attention to stimuli sensed by the ears. This is related to temporal factors.

In many manuals, handbooks and other scientific sources such as the Fundamental Components of Attention of the Annual Review of Neuroscience we can go deeper into the types of attention according to taxonomies like the type of sensory modality, according to the amplitude and modality, according to the attitude of the individual, amongst others.

What are the determining factors of attention?

There are determining factors that can affect the functioning of attention and can define which stimulus you will direct your attention to. These can be external or internal:

External factors (external determiners): come from surroundings and make concentration on relevant stimuli easier or more difficult. Some examples are:

  • Intensity: the more intense a stimulus is (strength of stimulus) the more likely you are to give attention resources to it.
  • Size: the bigger a stimulus is the more attention resources it captures.
  • Movement: moving stimuli capture more attention that ones that remain static.
  • Novelty: newer or strange stimuli attract more of our attention.
  • Change: if a different stimulus appears that breaks the dynamic, our attention will be directed to the new stimulus.
  • Colour: colourful stimuli are more attention grabbing than black and white ones.
  • Contrast: stimuli that contrast against a group attract more of our attention.
  • Emotional burden: positive just as much as negative stimuli attract our attention more than neutral ones.

Internal factors (internal determiners): come from the individual and therefore, depend on each person. Some examples are:

  • Interests: we concentrate more on stimuli that interests us.
  • Emotion: stimuli that provoke stronger emotions attract more attention. However, it must be kept in mind that positive moods contribute to focusing attention resources, but negative moods make concentration more difficult.
  • Effort required by the task: people make a prior evaluation of the effort required to do a task and depending on this, it will attract more or less attention.
  • Organic state: depends on the physical state that the person is in. So, states of tiredness, discomfort, fever, etc. will make mobilising attention more difficult. If, on the other hand, a person is in a state relating to survival, for example, thirst or hunger, stimuli related with the satiation of these needs will attract more attention resources.
  • Trains of thought: when thoughts follow a determined course, based on concrete ideas, the appearance of stimuli related to these will capture more of our attention.

What diseases are related to attention?

There are different diseases related to this cognitive ability, either by the altering or inadequate functioning or by the increase or deficit of attention. The classic categories classify the different variations of attention as: aprosexia, hypoprosexia, pseudoprosexia, paraprosexia and hyperprosexia. We will now give a brief descriptions of each one of these disorders.

Aprosexia: maximum reduction of attention ability, total absence of attention.

Hypoprosexia: decrease in attention ability. Within this category the following can be distinguished:

  • Distractibility: abrupt changes or marked instability in attention.
  • Emotional unstable attention: inconstant and changing attention performance.
  • Inhibition: inability to mobilise attention.
  • Neglect: neglect syndrome usually manifests as lack of attention, akinesia (loss or lack of movement) and hemispatial neglect (being unaware of half of the space that surrounds us).
  • Fatigue: exhaustion of attention as a consequence of cerebral factors, that is to say, being caused by traumas, tumours, dementia processes, etc.
  • Apathy: difficulties maintaining attention due to conditions such as extreme fatigue, malnutrition, sleepiness, etc.
  • Attention perplexity: unlike the other quantitative variations, this is considered qualitative and refers to the inability to achieve the synthesis of attention content, that is to say, to not be capable of capturing the meaning of phenomenon.

Pseudoprosexia: the lack of attention towards surroundings despite maintaining the ability in good condition.

Paraprosexia: abnormal direction of attention

Hyperprosexia: excessive and temporary focus of attention.

Despite the range of variations related to attention, these are not usually considered as one of the main signs or symptoms in the diagnosis of mental illnesses. When variations of attention happen because of illness, they usually use cognitive rehabilitation interventions, like they are doing for major depression, children with ADHD and mild dementia for example.

Attention is a cognitive ability that allows you to pay attention to environmental stimuli as well as personal internal states, a large number of stimuli and events demand our attention resources at the same time. This cognitive ability is limited and with the passing of time, stress and certain other diseases, amongst other causes, it can also deteriorate. To face these difficulties and to be able to pay attention to the relevant stimuli in the surroundings, there are different strategies that allow them to be trained, for example, cognitive stimulation, which nowadays forms part of the daily routines of a high percentage of the population (ample information on cognitive stimulation in children and teenagers and adults, older and elderly). Currently there are cognitive stimulation workshops aimed at professionals, in which they learn about different cognitive stimulation activities and exercises and how to do them.

Finally, there are different way of doing cognitive stimulation like brain-training games, stimulation exercise books or new neurotechnologies like Elevvo, EEG based technologies to improve sustained attention and other abilities like working memory and processing speed.

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