The sustained attention is the ability that allows us to focus on a single activity or stimulus for a certain period of time. It is closely related to concentration, as it allows us to block possible external distractions to focus on a single thing.
In fact, when talking about sustained attention, two equally important elements are usually mentioned: vigilance, which is what allows us to detect the appearance of a relevant stimulus, and concentration, which is what allows us to eliminate distractions to focus on the stimulus or activity that interests us.
Sustained attention is a fundamental skill for most areas of our life. Without it, we would not be able to perform practically any type of task, to achieve our goals, or to avoid the distractions that are presented to us. Therefore, its study is very important within the field of psychology.
In this article we will talk about all the characteristics of this type of care, as well as the main theories that try to explain how it works. In addition, we will look at some ways to strengthen this ability and assess your skill level with it.
Sustained attention is the ability of an organism to maintain the focus of attention for a more or less long time, while remaining alert to the possible presence of certain types of stimuli.
In general, we could say that sustained attention equates to the persistence of attention over time.
This cognitive process has a series of characteristics that it is necessary to know in order to get the most out of it and develop our capacity with it. Here we will see some of the most important.
It’s hard to sustain in time
Attention is a process that, because of how it works, is very difficult to maintain over time. This means that we can usually only focus on a task for a certain period of time, and then we will need to rest before we can try again.
Studies on loss of concentration have shown that there are mainly two ways in which our sustained attention decreases after holding it for a while. These two ways are distractibility, and attention lapses.
Distractibility is a process by which the person begins to have more and more trouble filtering out uninteresting stimuli and concentrating on the task at hand. The more distractibility increases, the more difficult it is to avoid being carried away by the elements of the environment.
Attention lapses, on the other hand, have more to do with the intensity of the individual’s attention. The person may still be aware of her task, but her level of activation is lower.
Therefore, you become less efficient and have more trouble coping with the activity you want to do.
It is a very demanding process
At the cognitive level, sustained attention uses a lot of mental resources. Because of this, there are all kinds of factors that influence the amount of time we can stay focused on a single task.
There is a psychological phenomenon, known as “ego depletion,” which consists of the following: when we perform a complex task that requires great concentration or considerable effort, our ability to maintain our sustained attention diminishes.
For example, a student who remains very attentive to his teacher’s explanations first thing in the morning will have a greater difficulty maintaining his concentration the rest of the day than one who has not used his sustained attention so intensively.
Can train or atrophy
The amount of sustained attention that we can exercise during a day is not fixed. On the contrary, it depends on a multitude of factors, such as the use we habitually make of this skill, the lifestyle we lead, or the tasks we often perform that require the use of this skill.
Thus, for example, it has been proven that sleeping well, eating a balanced diet and doing physical exercise are routines that can significantly increase the amount of sustained attention that we can use in a single day.
On the contrary, if we eat poorly, do not rest and are sedentary, our ability to concentrate will decrease.
Also, depending on how we use our sustained attention, the amount we can use in a day will increase or decrease over time.
In this sense, this skill is like a muscle: if we focus on a demanding task, after a while it will become easier for us to do it again.
On the contrary, if we allow ourselves to be distracted by all kinds of stimuli and only perform simple tasks that do not require our concentration, over time this ability will atrophy and it will be more difficult for us to focus on just one thing.
There are mainly four theories that try to explain what sustained attention is and how it works: the activation theory, the signal detection theory, the habituation theory and the expectation theory. Next we will see what each one of them consists of.
It is important to emphasize that it is very possible that the four theories are partly right. The process by which we are able to sustain our attention is very complex, so there is no single simple explanation that allows us to fully understand it.
The activation theory, also known as the arousal theory , states that we need a specific level of stimulation to be able to concentrate on a task.
If our activation is too low, we will get bored and will not be able to concentrate; but if it is too high, we will be stressed or distracted.
Thus, for each task there is an optimal point of arousal that allows us to maintain our attention for as long as possible.
The problem is that many of the tasks that require concentration are boring, so they fail to activate us and it is difficult for us to avoid distractions and get carried away by external stimuli.
For example, a student who is trying to memorize a text about a subject that he does not like would get bored and therefore lose his concentration.
Instead, that same young man trying to learn the lyrics to his favorite song would have no trouble keeping his attention on it.
Theory of signal detection
This second theory of sustained attention states that our ability to detect specific signals or stimuli decreases as our fatigue increases.
Thus, at the beginning of starting to perform a task, it would be easy for us to keep our concentration fixed, but over time this would become more and more complicated.
This process has been tested repeatedly in a laboratory environment. For example, in one experiment, participants were asked to press a button when they saw a specific type of stimulus appear on the screen.
Because there were also many distractions, this required great concentration on his part.
When starting the task, the participants got it right most of the time without any problem. However, after a while, both the false positives (pressing when the stimulus was not present) and the false negatives (not pressing when it was) increased.
The idea behind the habituation theory is very simple: by performing a repetitive task over and over again, it ceases to stimulate us.
Therefore, it is increasingly difficult for us to focus on it, and other newer stimuli are able to attract our attention more easily.
The expectation theory states that when we wait for something important to happen, it is easier for us to maintain our sustained attention. For example, a watchman who thinks something is going to happen during his shift will find it easier to be aware of his surroundings.
On the other hand, if our expectations of something important happening are low, it is much more difficult for us to maintain our concentration. The problem is that, when performing many of the tasks that require sustained attention, we have no expectation that something interesting will happen.
As we can see, our sustained attention span is not designed to be used for the kinds of tasks for which we normally need it.
However, each person has a different capacity for concentration: some individuals have hardly any problems in this area, while others find it difficult to focus.
Therefore, before starting any activity with the aim of improving the ability to concentrate on a sustained basis, it is necessary that we discover from what base we start. To do this, over the years a multitude of tests and tests have been developed that allow us to evaluate this ability.
The best known are the continuous execution test (CPT) and the SMDT. Next we will see what each of them consists of.
Continuous attention test
Much of the sustained attention tests can also be used to assess selective attention. The main difference in the way of measuring both is the difficulty of the task: selective attention would be more related to simple tasks, and concentration, to those that require a greater use of mental resources.
The continuous attention test is one of the tests that, modified, can be used to assess sustained attention. There are many different versions, but they are all of the “go / no go” type; that is, the person has to take an action when a specific situation occurs.
For example, in a variant of the sustained attention test known as “SART,” the participant has to look at a list of numbers.
When the one you are seeing on the screen is number 3, you have to be silent; but when it is any other number between 1 and 9, you have to say whether it is odd or even. This task is repeated for a specified number of times.
Another well-known variant is the “A Test”. The participant hears a random list of letters, and has to tap when he hears the letter A.
The letters are read quite quickly (one per second); and all sorts of failures often occur that help assess the person’s sustained attention span.
The SDMT is a test that assesses both the sustained attention and the processing speed of the person. For 90 seconds, the participant sees an image in which abstract symbols are related to numbers; and during this time, you have to translate series of numbers using this key.
At the end of the test, the key is withdrawn, and the person has to try to reproduce the series from memory in order to evaluate what they have learned in the process.
Activities to improve sustained attention
According to many studies, the majority of the inhabitants of the western world have increasingly worse ability to concentrate. Experts believe that this is due to the excess of information we have, the rise of smartphones and instant communication technologies, and the lifestyle we lead.
For this reason, in recent years there have been attempts to develop activities and programs that help improve sustained attention capacity. Below we will see a brief summary of the most useful ones.
Numerous studies link traditional reading to increased long-term ability to concentrate. On the contrary, reading articles from web pages or text messages seems to worsen this ability.
Because of this, more and more experts are recommending exchanging digital technology for a good book. The consensus is that, just by reading one hour a day uninterruptedly, we will see a significant improvement in our sustained attention.
Meditation is a traditional discipline that has more and more followers in the West. Those who practice it say that their ability to concentrate is greatly improved, and that they have fewer problems avoiding distractions of all kinds. In recent years, hundreds of experiments seem to confirm this effect.
Traditionally it is said that, just meditating for about fifteen minutes a day, can begin to experience improvements related to sustained attention.
However, the benefits may take a while to appear, so it is necessary to persevere with the practice of this discipline.
Disconnect from technology
As we mentioned before, more and more experts associate the use of mobile devices, instant messaging and social networks with concentration problems.
Apparently, constantly receiving notifications that divert us from our tasks significantly worsens our sustained attention.
For this reason, many people who want to improve in this area do what is known as « digital detox ». This practice consists of avoiding using all kinds of electronic devices for a certain period (usually 24 hours).
This can be difficult to accomplish, but it elevates our sustained attention in an important way.
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