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.