At one time or another you have probably had trouble focusing, or someone may have told you, “You’re not concentrating hard enough!” Attention is a complex cognitive function that is crucial in human behavior; it is involved in all your daily activities. With attention, an external event (a sound, a picture, a smell) or an internal event (a thought, a memory) is selected by your mind and brought into consciousness.

Attention may occur in an automatic, passive fashion or in a voluntary, active fashion. If you hear a sudden noise, such as thunder, you automatically focus on it. This shift of attention is an automatic, involuntary reaction to a noteworthy event. Attention is highly sensitive to changes in your immediate environment. This quality, “alertness,” enables you to be vigilant and to shift your attention quickly.

If you’re walking along a busy city street and suddenly feel hungry, your attention may focus on your hunger, and that focus may help you to spot an open bakery. This voluntary shift of attention occurs when a personal, subjective event occurs, and it helps you achieve a specific goal. Voluntary shifts of attention also play an essential role in behavior.

Since it is impossible for your brain to simultaneously process all the sensory information available to it at any given moment, your brain successively analyzes the information. How does your mind determine which items in this flow of information take priority, and in what order? A cognitive mechanism called “selective attention” intervenes to select the most relevant information. This relevance is determined in accordance with your expectations and your situation. Selective attention works like a spotlight, highlighting relevant items while the rest remain in the dark.

The interaction between memory and attention is significant, since attention is activated only when something new has to be processed— something that is not already part of your memory. Indeed, when the information is known or familiar (like a painting that hangs in your living room), it does not draw your attention, and your brain processes its existence in an automatic fashion. There is no reason for your attention to be called to it, unless you notice something different about it (the painting is hanging crooked) or you have a particular reason to focus on it (you want to show it to your friends).

In daily life, your attention is constantly being called upon, as in situations where there are multiple tasks to perform and your attention must be divided among them. Unfortunately, as you age, you may notice a decrease in your attention resources, as well as a greater sensitivity to events that interfere with focusing.

Some Exercises That Help Sharpen Your Focus Are

Last Word, in which you focus on each word in a sentence in order to arrive at the meaning of the text.

Quick Fit, in which you focus on the visual details of nearly identical images.

Displaced Characters, in which you practice sharpening your ability to observe.

Odd One Out, in which you focus your attention on a minute detail.

Try Them Now!