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.

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    About the author

    About the author

    Peg Rosen writes for digital and print, including

    Reviewed by

    Reviewed by

    Nelson Dorta, PhD is a pediatric neuropsychologist and an assistant professor of medical psychology in child psychiatry at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University.