Attention is a component of higher cortical cognitive functioning and refers to a person’s ability to (a) detect and focus on general environmental stimuli, and (b) select important environmental stimuli. Once an important stimulus is selected, its relevant or important characteristics must be identified while irrelevant competing stimuli are ignored. To “pay attention,” the individual must be able to employ and integrate a combination of visual, visual-motor, language, auditory, kinesthetic, and perceptual motor skills (these are the functional domains). The successful individual will use his or her attention skills to respond effectively to environmental stimuli and cues. Appropriate application of those skills means that the individual is able to make suitable adaptations to those cues, which allows the individual to engage in responses that optimize positive outcomes and minimize negative outcomes.
The ability to focus and sustain attention is normally developed by age 10 years. Youth who experience deficits in one or more of the functional domains or experience delayed maturation in the integration of those domains will most likely experience problems with attention. By age 13, youth have effective attention skills. However, their ability to maintain alertness and awareness, detect novel stimuli, discriminate between various intensities of the properties of a stimulus, recognize changes in stimuli, and sustain attention improves through the maturation process to adulthood. Attention skills begin to decline in older adults (after 60 years) as they attempt to manage multiple important stimuli.
Researchers do not know the exact causes of specific attention deficits. The identified causes are diverse and complex and stem from multiple factors, including the following:
- Damage to the developing brain can occur as a part of heredity, including genetic factors, neuroanatomy, neurotransmitters, and the association between neurological and familial-hereditary factors.
- Damage can also occur during pregnancy, during birth, or at any stage of maturation of the developing brain (e.g., errors in fetal brain development; tobacco, alcohol, and other drug use, such as cocaine or crack cocaine; complications during pregnancy or delivery; toxins in the child’s environment, such as cadmium; subtle disturbances in brain structures and functions; and difficulties in bringing together information from various brain regions).
- Postnatal exposure to toxins in the environment, chemotherapy or radiation therapy, or deficits in the maturation of visual or perceptual motor skills may impair attention skills.
- Multiple psychosocial factors can also impair attention skills, including depression and trauma (e.g., exposure to natural disasters, severe physical or mental neglect or abuse, parental violence or conflict, rape, sexual molestation, the violence of war).
Role Of Attention
Attention plays a significant role in the development and function of the following areas: cognitive (short and long-term memory, comprehension), visual, auditory, language, kinesthetic, perceptual motor, and integrative-adaptive. Attention allows us to orient to conditioned responses (hearing one’s name being called, seeing that name written on a paper), and it allows us to recognize danger and alert our other functional domains to prepare for action. Paying attention to a stimulus can allow kinesthetic changes, such as a change of body posture; changing direction of a gaze; changes in physiological state (e.g., brainwaves, galvanic skill responses, papillary dilation, quickened pulse); and changes in emotional responses (e.g., laughter, anger).
Some events in the environment capture our attention by causing changes in the stimuli around us. Some attention-arousing stimuli are composed of novel, complex, or shocking events in the environment (visual, auditory, or physical). A change in the physical properties or characteristics of familiar stimuli can also arouse our attention (i.e., variations in intensity, size, color, and pitch).
For example, Mary is watching the birds in a tree outside of her classroom window. The teacher says Mary’s name in her regular voice. Mary does not notice or detect her name being called and continues to gaze at the birds in the tree. Mary’s teacher remembers that if you want to get a person’s attention, you must sometimes vary the physical properties of a familiar stimulus. Mrs. Jones changes the pitch and the volume of her voice and calls Mary’s name again. This time, Mary detects the conditioned stimulus of her name being called and shifts her gaze and orients her body toward her teacher and says, “Yes, Mrs. Jones.” Now that Mrs. Jones has Mary’s attention, she knows that she will have to vary her teaching technique to maintain Mary’s attention and compete with the stimuli outside the window.
Some theorists contend that without attention, there can be no learning. The ability to concentrate or maintain attention is crucial to the ability to learn. The variation of stimuli is crucial to prevent habituation in learning situations or in activities in which detection of errors or dangerous defects is essential. Teachers in preschool, elementary, secondary, and adult learning situations are taught to vary stimuli, change their modes of communication (slides, written materials presented using slides, articles, books, audio stories, field trips, didactic lectures using humor, enthusiasm, and response-eliciting techniques).
How Is Attention Assessed?
Attention is often measured by a psychologist using several different types of testing instruments, including a mental status exam. These tests assess a person’s ability to detect a specific stimulus in the presence of other similar and dissimilar stimuli. The most common methods of measuring attention involve giving the person being assessed bits of information; next, the person is asked a series of questions about that information. The person’s responses to the questions will determine whether or not the person was paying attention. For example, Mr. Smith is assessing John’s ability to pay attention and identify relevant information. He gives John a brief story to read on attention and then asks him some specific question about that story. One of the test questions is: “What is attention? Give a one-sentence response.”
John writes the following:
Attention is a component of cognitive functioning and refers to a person’s ability to detect and focus on general stimuli and to select important environmental stimuli.
John’s response demonstrates that he paid attention to the whole question and answered it correctly. However, John might have written the following:
Attention is a component of cognitive functioning and refers to a person’s ability to detect and focus on general stimuli and to select important environmental stimuli. The successful individual will use his or her attention skills to respond effectively to environmental stimuli and cues. Appropriate application of those skills means that individual is able to make appropriate adaptations that optimize positive outcomes and minimize negative outcomes.
This answer demonstrates that Johnny did not pay attention to the whole question. He did not follow the second part of the question: “Give a one-sentence response.”
Attention is a component of higher cortical cognitive functioning and refers to a person’s ability to detect and focus on general stimuli and to select important environmental stimuli. The ability to focus and sustain attention is normally developed by age 10 years. Attention plays a role in the development and function of the following areas: cognitive (short and long-term memory, comprehension), visual, auditory, language, kinesthetic, perceptual motor, and integrative-adaptive. Youth who do not develop this skill may develop a range of developmental problems or disorders.
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