Already bouncy and sneaky by nature, our attention span is being severely strained in these times of overstraining. Yet attention is essential to our cognitive effectiveness, whether we are learning new things or simply performing many of our daily tasks. To preserve and cultivate it, a first step is to learn about its amazing mechanisms so that we can identify the factors that can be acted upon and those that are best to let go of. Focus on attention!

It was the German philologist Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, the precursor of psychology, who in the seventeenth century gave scientific status to attention by proposing the concept of “apperception,” a perception that is accompanied by reflection and awareness, as opposed to mere perception. It is one of the first statements about the limits of our field of consciousness. Attention will eventually become a leading concept in gestalt psychology, cognitive psychology, and cognitive linguistics.

It was not until the late 19th century that attention began to be studied experimentally. It was during this period that Hermann von Helmholtz, a Prussian physiologist and physicist, realized that we can focus our attention on an object present in our visual field without necessarily directing our gaze at it. This observation paved the way for the study of attentional mechanisms independently of the mechanisms of motor action.

In 1890, the founder of American psychology, William James, proposed a influential definition of attention, describing it as “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, localization, concentration, of consciousness are of its essence. It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others[…].” It should be noted that this definition is in line with today’s cognitive approach, and that even back then, James stated that education “par excellence” is the one that develops these faculties consisting in stabilizing one’s attention.

Starting in the 1990s, advances in functional brain imaging (fMRI) made it possible to better understand the mechanisms of attention and to confirm or invalidate certain explanatory models that had been advanced until then. Although the mysteries of attention have not yet been fully unravelled, the importance of continuing to explore its mechanisms is clear. In 1992, Michael Posner, an American psychologist and leading authority in the field, stated that “the study of attention is to the understanding of consciousness what the study of DNA is to the understanding of life” (Posner, 1992).

Several definitions, a few undisputed criteria

In the field of psychology, several definitions of attention have been proposed over time. Picton and al. (1986) have classified them into three categories, depending on whether they describe it as “a process that selects some information and ignores others”; “a resource allocated to mental processes that facilitate the selection of information”; or “a state of mind in which we place ourselves to receive and manage information.”

Notwithstanding the diversity of the angles from which attention is considered, a few criteria seem unavoidable to describe it. According to the analysis of Poissant, Falardeau and Poëllhuber (1993), attention is thus “always oriented according to the person’s goals and needs (Gibson et al., 1979). …] [It] is therefore a limited process in terms of quantity and duration. It restricts the information available and ensures that only a small portion of it is used for subsequent behaviours. Without this restriction, the body would be flooded with information and the behaviour would go in all directions (Simon, 1986). Moreover, it can only select information for a short period of time (Grabe, 1986; Simon, 1986).”

Nowadays, the multidimensional nature of attention is widely agreed upon as a function of selection, distribution of resources, regulation of behaviour and control of behaviour (Possamaï, Bonnel and Shark, 1993 – “L’attention”, Encyclopédia Universalis).

One sensation, three networks

Although perceived as a single sensation, attention is the result of several mechanisms in the cortical and subcortical regions, from the parietal lobe (at the back of the brain) to the frontal lobe (at the front). As with the definitions, several explanatory models have been proposed to describe the mechanisms underlying it. The one that still serves as a reference is the model proposed in 1990 by Michael Posner, to which some adjustments have since been made, thanks to advances in neuroimaging. It should be added that proposals from other researchers have made it possible to complement Posner’s, shedding light on the subtypes of attention.

According to Posner’s model, attention unfolds in three networks that are physiologically and functionally distinct but interrelated: alertness, attention and executive control. The alert network is a primitive form of attention that allows for a non-selective modulation of alertness (awakening) and mobilizes mental functions by ceasing ongoing activities so that the body can assess the new situation. Simply put, the alert network tells us “when to pay attention.”

The orientation network tells us “what” to pay attention to. It corresponds to our ability to select one element among many, whether sensory or mental. Orientation can be of two types: endogenous or exogenous (Raz and Buhle, 2006; Sieroff, 2015). It is endogenous when we focus and voluntarily direct our attention to an object, and exogenous when we are “passively” or automatically attracted to an external stimulus. The term top-down is also used to describe an endogenous orientation, while the term bottom-up is used to describe an exogenous orientation.

The third network of attention is that of executive control, which tells us “how to process information.” It is the network that enables the activation of all the processes underlying the planning, selection, initiation, execution, and supervision of purposeful goal-directed behaviours (Dehaene, 2014b). Working to improve executive attention is one of the keys to better learning in both children and adults.

From one type of attention to another

Sohlberg and Mateer’s model, commonly used to diagnose neurological disorders, divides attention into five components: focused, sustained, selective, alternating and divided attention. Very close to concentration, focused attention corresponds to the ability to respond in a targeted manner to a relevant sensory stimulus while inhibiting irrelevant stimuli. The other four components can be divided into two groups.

The first group includes sustained attention and selective attention, both of which refer to a situation where concentration must be on one thing at a time. Sustained attention refers to the ability to focus on one thing continuously and repeatedly. A task can be said to require sustained attention when it lasts at least 15 minutes. Selective attention, on the other hand, refers to the ability to focus on one object when several other stimuli could distract us. Both sustained attention and selective attention are associated with the idea of an attention filter or “top-down” control to counteract “bottom-up” distractions.

The second group, which includes alternating attention and divided attention, refers to situations where attention must be focused on more than one thing. Alternating attention refers to that mental flexibility that requires an attentional toggle between tasks with different cognitive demands. Divided attention, on the other hand, allows two or more tasks to be handled simultaneously. It is the latter that we are talking about when we talk about the “famous” multitasking (see Are we really good at multitasking?), which is the impression of being able to accomplish several tasks at the same time.

It is important to know that the attentional system is under the influence of the working memory (see 8 Types of Memory… to Remember!), which is essential to our executive functions and involved in most of our behaviours. However, the capacity of this working memory is limited (Sweller, 1988; Mousavie and al., 1995). Thus, the more cognitively demanding a task is, the more difficult it is for the working memory to process and the more time and attention it requires. If the working memory is overloaded — referred to as “cognitive overload” — the exchanges between the three brain regions involved are short-circuited (Miller and al., 2018).

Under the microscope of neuroscience

In recent years, neuroscience has contributed to our understanding of attention by giving us access to how it is translated deep within our grey (and white, to be more precise!) matter. Thus, we know a little more about the merciless struggle that is always going on in our brains between what we might call “prodistraction” and what we might call “proattention.”

“At the brain level, attention is the act of favouring a particular group of neurons at the expense of others,” summarizes Jean-Philippe Lachaux, a cognitive neuroscientist and attention specialist. “The role, the goal of attention is to make a selection. We talk about selective attention: selection between everything that happens to us, between all the ways we process the same stimulus, between all the thoughts we may have. There is a jungle of things around us, and we have to select; we can only take a part of it to treat it in depth. The more things around us, the harder it is to select,” explains the neuroscientist.

Systems in constant battle

If attention is so fragile, so “bouncy”, it is because our brain is the scene of a merciless struggle between our “prodistraction” and “proattention” systems. One of our two “prodistraction” systems is the parietal lobe, which plays a key role in the integration of sensory information. As Lachaux illustrates, this region of the brain obeys its environment and prompts us to act according to our habits: “It is this system that is notably behind the movements of our gaze [but it] also extends to mental perceptions: for example, the perception of a telephone will trigger a gesture of telephone use.”

The second system that works to destabilize our attention is the reward circuit. According to our desires and tastes, this circuit modifies the “saliency map”, a sort of brain map of the elements in our environment that seem, at first sight, to deserve our attention. We can speak of a preattention system, a first filter through which stimuli pass.

It is our “control” system, the executive system, located in the frontal lobe, that has to battle these two powerful “prodistraction” systems. The executive system determines how the selected information will be processed. It governs the set of high-level processes known as “executive control” that allow us to adapt to new or non-routine situations: planning, selecting, initiating, executing, and supervising purposeful, voluntary behaviours.

However, one element complicates the work of the executive system in maintaining attention: the fact that it is itself divided, since it must juggle several objectives and decide. “The executive system can sometimes win the game,” says Lachaux, “But it’s not surprising that quite often we get distracted because other systems are active and counterbalance its influence.” In addition to attention deficit disorders and brain damage, there are other conditions that contribute to distraction, such as stress, fatigue, addictions, easy pleasures, lack of psychological flexibility, and so on.

It should be noted that the maturation of executive control, which takes place gradually during childhood, is crucial in the development of an individual’s behaviour. This is because attention allows for both the continuity and consistency of goal-oriented behaviour as well as flexibility of behaviour in response to changes in the environment (Colliot and al., 2007). In other words, without attention our behaviour cannot be consistent. It should also be noted that a problem of attention control is distinct from a problem of attentional capacity (Krupsky, 1980). In the first case, the person lacks attention only in certain contexts, whereas in the second case, regardless of the situation, he or she remains unable to remain attentive for long periods of time.

Distraction: An integral part of the attentional system

Just as forgetting is essential for memory to function properly — you read that right! (see Learning and Forgetting: New Perspectives on the Brain) —, “normal” distraction (not aggravated by a health or other conditions) is not in itself a malfunction of the attention system; rather, it is an integral part of it, and without it we would be at a serious behavioural disadvantage. This is because, as a mechanism of selection, attention implies that we make ourselves unavailable for a given amount of time for information or activities other than the “chosen” one — let’s use quotation marks here, since this selection, which occurs several times per second, is most often unconscious. However, this state of “stability” cannot last too long, at the risk of missing out on more advantageous opportunities… this is what Aston-Jones and Cohen (2005) were the first to argue by applying the exploitation-exploration dilemma to the brain’s decision-making process.

“We generally evolve with a pile of short- and long-term objectives that are ill-defined and without a precise hierarchy; faced with this abundance of objectives, the brain reacts by zapping,” explains Jean-Philippe Lachaux about the exploitation-exploration dilemma that every living being faces in the context of limited resources.

“If you find a source of food, for example, you will always wonder if there isn’t more next door… And if you don’t go and see, you can’t know! This dilemma explains why stability, being “stuck” in one place, can come at a cost,” says the neuroscientist. From this perspective, it would therefore be normal that after a while of focusing on one element, we begin to feel all sorts of little warning signals that prompt us to turn our attention elsewhere.

Perception-action loop

Our sensory-motor system is designed to learn by interacting with our environment through what is called a perception-action loop or cycle, which means that any perception (sensory, emotional, intellectual, etc.) leads to an action — most often a motor or “use” gesture, but it can also be thinking, talking, etc. — that we can use to learn. In turn, all action leads to perception. In this loop, which occurs 3 to 4 times per second, attention comes just before perception, and in many cases, because things happen very quickly, action follows perception directly without reflection, and the process is limited to reaction.

There are three factors that determine the reaction to what is perceived: habit, which tends to make us react in one way rather than another; general usefulness, which is what we tend to find useful or enjoyable; and ad hoc usefulness, which is what we find useful in achieving our current objective.

“In everyday life, our performance is critically dependent on how well these choices [and the perception and action associated with them] match our current purpose. This is why the quality of our attention has so much influence on the quality of our actions and achievements,” says Jean-Philippe Lachaux.

Without attention, there is no learning

The importance of attention is crucial for learning and this is also observed at the neuronal level, as Jean-Philippe Lachaux describes: “The fact that there is a little more prolonged activity in the sensory areas is very important, because it keeps neurons active together, which will create links between them, neuroplasticity, which will act on the networks. There will be formation of networks, and therefore memorization.”

Although the mechanisms underlying attention can be strengthened in adulthood, it is during childhood that executive control quietly develops. “Since attention determines learning, mobilizing children’s attention is a priority objective,” says cognitive neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene, who developed the four pillars of learning (see Neuroscience: Learning in Four Steps).

“[The teacher] must also be careful not to create double tasks, especially for children with difficulties. Finally, executive control is one of the most important cross-curricular skills that the school can develop by practicing, starting in kindergarten, exercises to learn to control oneself, to concentrate, to pay attention to one’s limits (metacognition) and to correct oneself,” he adds.

Improving attention in adulthood

Strategies for improving attention in adulthood include: learning about attention (and distraction!), developing metacognitive skills (see Metacognition 101 and Develop Your Metacognitive Skills), and prioritizing and focusing on one goal at a time for 5 to 10 minutes. Jean-Philippe Lachaux invites us to see this difficulty in stabilizing our attention as a lack of balance requiring observation, tact and sensitivity. A more profitable posture according to him than the typically Western vision which presents it as a lack of strength requiring an (unpleasant) effort of concentration, which requires to “muscle” one’s brain and to work on one’s attentional endurance.

By evoking the image of the tightrope walker, the neuroscientist proposes a new paradigm: “We will no longer talk about strength, but about being able to observe these great systems of forces that act on attention, to observe them in action; we will talk about sensitivity, i.e., feeling when a force begins to direct and take over; and we will talk about dexterity, fine control, a little like the tightrope walker.” Referring to the title of one of his books on attention, he adds: “The tightrope walker’s brain is the brain that redirects its attention, not like a weightlifter, but like a tightrope walker, in small touches, to bring its attention all the time back to its goal.”

Taking a broader perspective on attention, including entering the realm of philosophy, can undoubtedly motivate some of us to become more attentive. “There is a onus of attention, just as there is a onus of gratitude for what we have received,” explains the French philosopher Paul Clavier in Le Point (January 2020). “Stoic ethics rests entirely on exercises of attention to what depends on us, and liberation from what does not depend on us. Attention is not only a psychological device, it is also a virtue that can be cultivated. Between the withdrawal into oneself, cold or deadly, and the dazing dispersion where one gets lost, it is up to us to place the cursor of a just attention”, he concludes in a nutshell.

What is attention?

Attention 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, localization, concentration, of consciousness are of its essence. It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others[…].

William James

Catherine Meilleur

Catherine Meilleur

Creative Content Writer @KnowledgeOne. Questioner of questions. Hyperflexible stubborn. Contemplative yogi.

Catherine Meilleur has over 15 years of experience in research and writing. Having worked as a journalist and educational designer, she is interested in everything related to learning: from educational psychology to neuroscience, and the latest innovations that can serve learners, such as virtual and augmented reality. She is also passionate about issues related to the future of education at a time when a real revolution is taking place, propelled by digital technology and artificial intelligence.