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  • Distraction
  • Focus and attention

How attention works

By Peg Rosen

At a Glance

  • Attention is a complex process.

  • It allows us to take in and make sense of information. 

  • Some people have difficulty with attention, but there are ways to help.

Paying attention may seem like a single action or skill. But it’s actually a process that involves a number of steps.

Attention is like a funnel that lets people select and take in useful information. Once the information is in, the brain can make sense of it and store it in memory to be used later. (This type of memory is called working memory.)

There are four steps to paying attention:

  1. Being aware, alert, and ready to take in information. 

  2. Choosing what to pay attention to as information comes in. 

  3. Ignoring distractions to focus on what you’re doing.

  4. Shifting focus back to a task if you’ve been distracted.

These steps may seem simple. But they’re not always easy. Young kids may need more time to develop the necessary skills. And some people, including those with ADHD , may have trouble with attention into adulthood.

Dive deeper

Attention and working memory

Attention is closely linked to another key skill called working memory. Attention lets us take in information. Working memory lets us hold on to it long enough to use it.

Let’s say someone is giving you a phone number. You need to pay attention to each number they’re saying. But you also have to remember the numbers long enough to write them down or use them right away.

Attention and working memory work together to help us get things done. We rely on them to follow directions, complete tasks, and make sense of new information.

Learn more about the relationship between attention and working memory

ADHD and trouble with focus

Difficulty paying attention is a key symptom of ADHD. People with ADHD struggle to tune out distractions, including their own thoughts. That makes it hard to focus on tasks and activities, from doing homework to playing sports to writing a report at work.

When people with ADHD lose focus or don’t seem to be listening, it may come off as rudeness. But lack of attention isn’t something they can control. ADHD and its symptoms are due to differences in the brain.

There’s a confusing aspect of ADHD and attention. People with ADHD can often hyperfocus on things they find highly interesting. That behavior is also not something they can control.

Find out why kids have trouble with focus and why some people with ADHD hyperfocus .

Causes of attention problems and what can help

People have trouble with attention for different reasons. Sometimes it’s due to outside circumstances. Being hungry, not getting enough sleep, or facing stress can all make it hard to focus. 

Some people can make changes in lifestyle and routine that can help. Others aren’t easily able to change circumstances.

Anxiety can also get in the way of paying attention. Problems with anxiety are common in people with learning challenges and ADHD. There are different ways of treating anxiety, including therapy and medications.

ADHD is a common reason for attention problems. This common condition is caused by differences in how the brain develops and functions. The best treatment for most people with ADHD is medication. 

Learn how ADHD medication works in the brain .

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  • Coming soonGoogle Classroom