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What Are Attention Tasks?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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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.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By burcinc — On Oct 13, 2014

@serenesurface-- Well, the brain is responding to stimuli all the time, but it's not engaging in an attention task at all times. In fact, it can't. It would be tiring.

When one is at a park just sitting and watching the surroundings, he is not engaging in an attention task. But his brain is still receiving information from stimuli around him and processing it and determining what to focus on.

We can't process everything at once. So we are always prioritizing what we see. The difference with an attention task is that we have to give priority to that task for a considerable period of time. Usually the most we can manage with the attention span that we have. So it's more difficult.

By serenesurface — On Oct 12, 2014

Is there an opposite of an "attention task?" Isn't everything an attention task really? How can the brain do anything without paying attention?

By SteamLouis — On Oct 11, 2014

Being able to "multi-task" is one of the qualities that every employer is looking for these days. I had never thought of it this way, but this skill is about divided attention tasks. It's about dividing attention to multiple tasks and handling all of them simultaneously. It's actually difficult to do and not everyone is good at it.

I'm not too bad with it, although I do find it overwhelming sometimes. I actually think that people who have short attention spans may be better at multi-tasking since the task one focuses on keeps shifting. That's actually a good way not to get bored while working.

I have a decent attention span and I do prefer finishing one thing before moving on to something else.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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