Concentration is the ability to focus the mind on a task or series of tasks while ignoring other distractions. There are several levels of concentration based on how the mind is dealing with extraneous stimuli. Another measure of concentration is the span of time in which focus on a single task can be maintained. Certain disorders and neurological diseases can make it impossible for a person to focus. Several methods also are available to help improve focus when there is a problem.
Sustained attention is what is most commonly perceived as concentration in human beings. This is a state in which a person remains cognizant despite performing or experiencing something that does not readily keep his or her attention. The person will remain consistently focused on the task at hand for as long as it lasts, from beginning to end.
The opposite of sustained attention is focused attention. This is when a person is presented with some type of event that draws his or her attention to it. Although focused attention usually lasts only seconds, there is concentration and exclusion of other environmental events for that period of time before re-focusing on another subject.
The two remaining types of concentration are known as selective and alternating. Selective attention is the ability of a person to maintain focus on a task while other stimuli are threatening to actively draw away that attention. An example of this is called the cocktail party effect, in which a person is able to focus on a single listener while excluding all others talking in the room. Alternating attention is when a person can freely switch his or her attention between two separate tasks.
The normal mechanisms of focus can be interrupted by diseases or neurological disorders. These disorders can hinder the operation of the brain, causing a person either to move quickly from one subject to another or to hyper-focus on a single task for an extended period of time. These types of conditions often affect short-term memory, as well. Less extreme conditions, such as attention deficit disorder (ADD), can cause a shortened attention span and difficulty learning.
There are mental exercises that can help people who have problems focusing. These can include structured games, timed activities, meditation or even just something as simple as doing crossword puzzles. Certain medications also can help to improve the level of focus and attention in a person who has trouble concentrating.