The ability to focus one’s attention on a specific point of interest for a given time is referred to as selective attention. Imagine a scenario wherein you can pay attention to everything. That would lead to information overload. Selective attention enables an individual to react to certain stimuli from among those occurring simultaneously. This ability is crucial particularly when you need to focus on a task you need to finish before the time is up. You tend to put much of your attention to your target and then ignore potential distractions.
Neurobiology of selective attention
Selective attention is one of the neural functions of the brain. The neurons relay the information from one neuron to the next by releasing neurotransmitters, such as acetylcholine, at the synapse. The neurons responsible for our capacity to focus are found in the lateral prefrontal cortex.1 They are also responsible for suppressing potential distractions in the background. For more neurobiological aspect and potential therapeutic targets, read Selective Attention – neurobiology and potential therapeutics.
Selective attention and inattentional blindness
While we can choose which of the things to focus on and which ones to ignore, there are also instances wherein we tend to overlook things beyond our will. One of the possible consequences of selective attention is inattentional blindness, which is the phenomenon of not being able to perceive things although they are just right in front of our eyes. Because we are focused on one thing, there is a tendency that other things escape us. For instance, you might not notice the tiniest details on your essay (e.g. misspelled words) or missed key information from a reference book.
Inattentional blindness can be perfectly demonstrated through Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris’ invisible gorilla test. The test is a video of two basketball teams in which the viewer has to count how many times the ball is tossed around to the team members. The viewer would likely be so busy counting that the person in a gorilla suit walking back and forth on the background would easily go unnoticed. Because of selective attention, we are inclined to filter things out. We might even think that we saw everything but, in fact, we only see what we want to see. Thus, letting other salient details to slip out while on selective attention is not unusual.
Brief diversions improve selective attention
Imposing short and momentary breaks helps to rest mentally from sustained stimulations, and thereby, possibly keep up excellent selective attention.
One could easily surmise that selective attention and distractions should never go together when one wants to complete a highly demanding task. However, this seems to be the opposite based on what Atsunori Ariga and Alejandro Lleras from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found in their study.2 Repetitive tasks that required prolonged selective attention could wind up to diminished quality in performance. The researchers presumed that diminishing attention per se was not the culprit to a poor performance but the constant stimulation happening in the brain. Lleras explained: “Constant stimulation is registered by our brains as unimportant, to the point that the brain erases it from our awareness.” What their study implicates is to impose short and momentary breaks to rest mentally from sustained stimulations. Brief breaks, as they proposed, will help to stay focused while doing long, arduous tasks, such as studying before an exam.2
Perhaps, we can all agree that there are times when selective attention can be a cinch and then there are also times when it is simply impossible. We can get easily distracted. There are just so many factors that prevent us from focusing on a daunting task. An emotional turmoil, for instance, is one such distraction that can be difficult to overcome. Nevertheless, these studies open up to possibilities how diversions and distractions can be put to use to uphold selective attention to tasks that need to be done over prolonged periods of time.
— written by Maria Victoria Gonzaga
1 McGill University. (2015, January 7). Having a hard time focusing? Research identifies complex of neurons crucial to controlling attention. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/01/150107081701.htm
2 University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. (2011, February 8). Brief diversions vastly improve focus, researchers find. ScienceDaily. Retrieved June 5, 2018, from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/02/110208131529.htm