The Four Types of Attention

September 30, 2019
Attention is a complex psychological process. There are also multiple types of attention. Keep reading to learn more!

Understanding that there are multiple types of attention is important. Most people believe attention is the ability to focus. Anytime someone is distracted or simply not listening to you, you say they’re “not paying attention”. But here’s our question: is it actually possible to live with zero attention?

Attention disorders are extremely common and overdiagnosed these days. This isn’t surprising at all. We live in a society that demands constant processing of endless stimuli. Ads, multi-tasking, and electronic devices are just a few examples of the things that fight over our attention at any given moment.

Attention is a cognitive process that takes place in your brain. This means that just because someone is distracted doesn’t mean they don’t have any form of attention. Instead, they’re simply directing it somewhere else at that time.

A man in glasses with his hand on his chin, thinking deeply about something.

Attention is an executive function

Attention is one of the most complex processes in our brain. In fact, experts haven’t yet decided on a fixed definition of it. It’s a brain function that helps you filter out stimuli, process information, and focus on a specific thing. For that, your frontal lobe has to assimilate all the information coming from the rest of your nervous system.

That process happens on several different levels, depending on what specific medium you’re interacting with. The characteristics of a given task and what it demands of you condition the kind of attention you have to use.

Types of attention

As we mentioned above, there are different levels of attention. One fundamental concept you must understand is orientation. What that basically means is your awareness of your surroundings. The type of attention you require depends on your level of awareness and how many activations you need to respond.

Focalized attention

This type of attention is your ability to respond specifically to one stimulus. That requires you to ignore all the other stimuli in your surroundings. You need a high level of alertness and activation for it.

If you become very tired after a long period of alertness, you no longer ignore other stimuli. In other words, you become more vulnerable to distractions.

Sustained attention

Sustained attention is the type you use for tasks that take a long time. It’s basically what allows you to do one specific cognitive activity consistently. For example, if you have to study for an exam, you need to read and process the information in a textbook for several hours. The reward isn’t often immediate which is why this type of attention has many obstacles such as:

Divided attention

Our brains are absolutely amazing. They allow us to do multiple things at the same time! It’s worth mentioning that even if they aren’t very demanding tasks, it still has to divide your attention in a way that allows you to perform well in both tasks. 

However, this is a limited capacity. As one or both sources of information begin to demand more of your attention, your ability to respond will weaken. For example, if you need to write and listen at the same time or look at and talk to your professor at the same time, you’re using divided attention.

Alternating attention

This is the most important type in terms of cognitive flexibilityIt basically involves the ability to change the focus of your attention and switch between different tasks.

One example is preparing the different ingredients in different times frames to prepare a complex recipe. To do that well, you have to switch tasks without forgetting the previous one because you’ll go right back to it in a few seconds.

The importance of attentional control

Attention isn’t a singular, exclusive mental process. Most of the tasks you do require a combination of the various types of attention.

Attentional control, or the ability to alternate between and effectively use these different types, depends on other executive functions. Here are some of the most important ones:

  • Memory. Many tasks require you to recover things from your long or short-term memory. You need a good level of attention for that.
  • Planning. Other tasks require simultaneous, planned action. To do that well, you have to effectively organize and execute each and every one.
  • Inhibition. This is the ability to block, filter, and control the sensory stimuli around you that don’t have any bearing on what you’re trying to do.
A woman sitting on the couch thinking, with her hand on her chin.

Which parts of the nervous system play a role in attention?

  • The reticular activating system. Attention requires the ability to take in stimuli. The periphery information around you gets processed as it travels through the brain stem.
  • The parietal lobe. This is an important brain structure in the spatial processing of stimuli and the allocation of resources for a particular task.
  • The frontal lobe. This is the conductor of your brain’s orchestra. It’s the part of your brain that picks out responses and motor skills to execute a specific plan and take action.

A vital tool

Attention is a complex brain function which has played a very important role in our evolution and development as a species. It’s also a skill that you need to train. Any damage to the structures we just mentioned can lead to irreversible brain damage.

The four types of attention are all equally important and we use them all every day. In some cases, it’s for automatic things such as eating breakfast. In others, it’s for complex things such as driving in traffic. Thus, it’s vital for our daily lives.