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What Is Sustained Attention?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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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 fashion. These can include environmental as well as cognitive disruptions; certain learning disabilities, for example, interfere with attention. Patients with conditions like Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) have difficulty with sustained attention tasks.

There are three general stages to sustained attention. The first involves attracting notice to direct a person’s focus onto a particular stimulus. Someone sifting through the newspaper in the morning, for example, might notice an article that looks interesting. This initiates the task of reading the article, which requires holding the attention on the text as the person reads through it. Finally, release allows someone to move on to another task.

Some tasks lend themselves well to split or interrupted attention, allowing people to work on multiple things at once. Someone can watch television and knit, for example. Others require sustained attention; it is harder to read while watching children, or to drive a car while shaving. People who have difficulty with such tasks may have trouble with the initiation process or with holding their attention long enough to finish.

Studies on sustained attention evaluate 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 can help scientists understand how attention works, and how people can address deficits that make it hard for them to focus on stimuli. People can also have a problem with releasing or breaking 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 subject and can become distressed if someone attempts to interrupt or redirect their attention.

Individuals with learning disabilities may benefit from accommodations like quiet rooms to work in so they are less easily distracted. Some find it helpful to take medications, which can increase their ability to focus on specific discrete tasks. Others participate in exercises to develop and refine their attention skills; these can 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 any clinical trials in their area to give them an opportunity to access treatment while helping other people with attention problems.

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.
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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 irontoenail — On Jun 22, 2014

@umbra21 - That's discrimination though. It's the same thing as people saying that there should be an arbitrary cut-off in age where people can't drive any longer. It's ridiculous, because everyone has to take the same driving test.

If the test isn't enough to weed out the people who shouldn't be driving, then that's what should change. Otherwise you'll end up banning everyone with ADD from the road and that would take out a huge percentage of drivers who are perfectly safe.

By umbra21 — On Jun 21, 2014

@Ana1234 - I don't know if you can cut attention up into those kinds of distinctions though. I mean, if you are driving, you're paying attention to several things at once anyway. I'm not saying people should use their cell phones, but it's not like you're concentrating exclusively on the road ahead while you drive.

This also makes me wonder whether there should be some provision to ensure that people who can't concentrate well aren't allowed to drive either. If they aren't able to focus well on a task, then how can they be safe drivers?

By Ana1234 — On Jun 20, 2014

Apparently the ability to multitask doesn't actually exist the way that people think it does. You can never really pay attention to two things at once. You're always switching between the two. Some people might be better at the switching, and more vigilant or quicker at doing this, but ultimately they still have to sacrifice the attention of one thing for another.

This is why driving and using a cell phone is so dangerous. Because, no matter how good a driver you are, you are still taking your attention away from the road for any time that you spend concentrating on your phone.

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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