What Is Executive Attention?

Laura M. Sands

Executive attention is a term used to describe one of the main components of a person’s working memory. It is characterized by the ability to effectively block outside distractions while focusing on a single object or task. In psychology, executive attention is often studied in the realm of working memory and it is but one of several theories of attention. In everyday life, executive attention is what many people focus on when trying to improve memory and productivity.

Scientist who study attention and memory have found executive attention begins to develop in childhood and continues until early adulthood.
Scientist who study attention and memory have found executive attention begins to develop in childhood and continues until early adulthood.

Working memory is the type of memory humans use to perform conscious tasks. It is also useful for problem-solving purposes, as it allows the recollection of relevant and useful data. Within working memory, executive attention is necessary in order to disregard useless incoming stimuli that may otherwise distract the mind and not allow it to retain useful information.

There are at least five main types of attention that have been identified by experts in the field of memory and attention. Included in these types are focused, sustained and selective attention, which all require more cognitive effort than the remaining two types, which are alternating and divided attention. Among these five types, executive attention would be considered as focused attention.

Improving executive attention is often the goal of people who exhibit weaknesses in memory and attention. Without conscious control over this cognitive effort, people have a tendency to experience poor levels of productivity. Beyond being easily distracted, people who lack executive attention tend to struggle to set and achieve goals, as well as find difficulty in learning new concepts.

Scientist who study attention and memory have found that this type of attention begins to develop in childhood and continues until early adulthood. A sort of growth spurt of this attention type also appears to take place between the second and seventh year of a person’s life. Researchers believe that problems with its development are exhibited in children who are diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder during that same age period.

A main purpose of executive attention is to filter and remove useless data and stimuli from the forefront of a person’s consciousness while allowing important and useful information to be stored for later use. In the complete or near complete absence of this filter, people can be overwhelmed by stimuli and also exhibit behavioral difficulties. Research does not indicate that a lack of or poor executive memory corresponds to a person’s level of intelligence, however.

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Discussion Comments


@OeKc05 – There are some kids and adults who are incapable of using executive attention. If someone has ADHD, then focusing on anything for more than a minute or so is nearly impossible for them.

My husband has ADHD, and he had so much trouble in school. He made terrible grades, and he was always acting out in class. He just couldn't sit still and listen, so he didn't learn anything.

He didn't get to see a psychiatrist until he was in his twenties, so he suffered from ADHD for years before even knowing what he had. Now, he is on medication for it, and he is able to focus his attention on things and get them done. Before, he would start several projects and leave them all unfinished because he lacked focus.


It's so important for kids to learn how to pay attention at a young age. If teachers and parents don't train them correctly, how are they ever going to be able to function in life? It's nearly impossible to hold a job if you can't focus your attention on it.


It can be really hard to devote all your attention to something. I find myself getting distracted by several things every time that I need to concentrate, even in the privacy of my own room.

My thoughts begin to wonder, and I start planning what I'm going to wear or eat the next day. I just can't seem to make my mind empty itself of all but the project I need to be working on.

I've always had issues with executive attention. Back when I had homework every night, I used to have to reread every paragraph of a book, because I couldn't remember what I had just read.


I work with some people who have trouble using executive attention. They play around on the internet when we have projects due in just hours!

Luckily, my job doesn't depend on their performance. I would be enraged if it did. I don't have issues with focusing only on one thing at a time, and I don't understand people who do.

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