What is sustained attention?

Sustained attention is a directed focus on a stimulus for the duration of a cognitive task. Distractions can break a person's attention and make it difficult to complete the task in a timely or effective manner. These can include environmental and cognitive disorders; certain learning difficulties, for example, interfere with attention. Patients with conditions such as attention deficit disorder (ADD) have difficulty with sustained attention tasks.

There are three general stages to sustained attention. The former involves attracting attention to direct a person's focus to a particular stimulus. Someone checking the newspaper in the morning, for example, may notice an article that seems interesting. This initiates the task of reading the article, which requires keeping the attention on the text while the person reads it. Finally, release allows someone to move on to another task.

Some tasks lend themselves well to dividing or interrupting attention, allowing people to work on multiple things at once. Someone can watch TV and knit, for example. Others require sustained attention; It is more difficult to read while watching children, or driving a car while shaving. People who have difficulty with sustained attention tasks may have trouble with the initiation process or with keeping their attention long enough to finish.

Sustained attention studies assess the parts of the brain involved and the differences between developing and adult brains, as well as the brains of people with various cognitive disabilities. This research may help scientists understand how attention works and how people can address deficits that make it difficult for them to focus on stimuli. People may also have trouble releasing or interrupting attention when they are finished, a phenomenon seen in some patients with autism spectrum disorders and similar conditions. These patients become hyper-focused on a task or topic and can become distressed if someone tries to interrupt or redirect their attention.

People with learning disabilities may benefit from accommodations such as quiet rooms to work in, so they are less easily distracted. Some find it helpful to take medication, which can increase their ability to focus on specific specific tasks. Others participate in exercises to develop and refine their attention skills; These may include meditation or learning exercises that require sustained attention to respond to prompts. People interested in developing coping skills and contributing to research can see if there are clinical trials in their area to give them the opportunity to access treatment while helping others with attention problems.

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