Attention tasks are activities which require selecting specific stimuli to perceive and understand. For example, doing math homework is an attention task, as the student needs to focus on the problem set in order to solve it. Researchers may develop attention tasks to use in studies that examine how the brain handles competing stimuli and sorts through information to find the relevant material. Such studies can be particularly important when they involve people who have difficulty with such tasks. Their brain activity can provide insight into how attention develops and how to help patients with neurological deficits.
Such activities may be auditory, visual, or tactile. An example of an auditory task involves picking out a conversation in a crowded room and paying attention to it to understand what the speaker is saying and respond to it. Reading is a visual task, while an activity like feeling and understanding the texture of an unknown object is tactile. Some attention tasks involve input from multiple stimuli; aircraft pilots, for example, pay attention to visual, tactile, and auditory cues.
The nature of attention tasks can vary. Focused tasks require complete concentration on specific stimuli; a surgeon is performing a focused attention task which is also an example of a sustained task, where the person needs to keep concentrating to finish. Other tasks may be divided or segmented, allowing people to switch tasks or handle input from multiple sources at once. Someone cooking dinner while watching children, for example, is engaged in a divided attention task.
In the identification and completion of attention tasks, the brain handles huge numbers of stimuli from the surrounding environment and quickly determines which are the most important. The ability to do this emerges as people develop and have an opportunity to practice. Infants and young children, for example, can have trouble with focused and sustained attention tasks. Cognitive impairments can also cause problems because they may interfere with the parts of the brain involved in processing and prioritizing stimuli in the environment.
Researchers developing attention tasks design them very carefully to make sure they understand precisely what they are studying. If a task is too vague or complex, it might activate numerous areas of the brain, and could provide muddied results. In some cases, there is an active desire to confuse or challenge people to learn about how subjects handle environments with competing stimuli, like driving cars while talking on the phone.