1 February 2021 17:09
For cognitive psychologists, attention is defined as how we actively process information in our surrounding environment. Along with that comes a large degree of prioritisation. Imagine that you are merely sitting down and reading this article on the train - perhaps on your commute to or from work. Even in such a seemingly innocuous situation, there will be a huge variety of sights, sounds and inputs that our brains have to process: the hardness of the chair on which we are sitting, the light glinting in from outside the carriage, the reflection of other passengers on the smartphone screen, even unconscious processes; such as the rhythm of your own breath as you read this.
So the question is, how do we manage all these stimuli? How can we even make a coherent picture in our minds with such a deluge of information?
The simple answer is; by filtering our a huge amount of it. It’s important to realise that our attention is inherently limited. This is no mere conceptual insight, but one that bears remembering in our day to day lives as well.
There are many models of attention, but perhaps one of the more widely accepted is the division of attention into four main types:
This is usually taken to be our ability to maintain our focus on a specific subject for an extended period of time - such as an exam, or a particularly engrossing game. Our ability to maintain this state of focus can vary according to a number of factors. For instance, if we feel tired or our energy levels are low, it can be difficult to engage fully with a subject. Likewise, if we are in an environment with a variety of distractions, we can find it hard to give all our attention to the task at hand.
This brings us perhaps to Selective Attention. This is our ability to avoid distraction whilst we concentrate on a task. Perhaps this might be not allowing our mind to wander during our aforementioned exam or the ability to stay focused on our homework whilst texts and notifications ping in from our smartphones.
That does not mean that we cannot split our attention and there are usually two ways of conceptualising this. The first is Alternating Attention. Here we attempt to divide ourselves between two discrete tasks that may be happening concurrently. You might find that you do this more often than you think. For instance, while cooking its often necessary to ‘keep an eye’ on one pan, whilst preparing food to go in another.
In the workplace, we can sometimes be required to perform multiple duties or take on separate responsibilities at the same time. This is especially so for management-level employees. At one moment they may be performing a task that requires concentrated and dispassionate analytic thought, such as examining numbers on a spreadsheet, whilst at the next, they might be required to mediate an employee dispute as sympathetically as they can all whilst keeping in mind the long term goals of the team or company.
Whilst sometimes we’re able to rely on muscle memory or training, the truth is that focusing intently on more than one task is often incredibly difficult. This can put a real strain on us in the long term and is often a source of stress and anxiety for many - both in and out of the workplace.