ReFirement at Any Age: Pay attention

By Gail Supplee Tatum, Columnist, The Times

We live in a world where, now more than ever, we need to be alert and pay close attention to what we are doing, what we are saying, who we interact with and who we speak with.

We must be aware of the activity around us and of the people around us who are not paying attention. It could be a dangerous combination if we all were unaware of our surroundings! Summertime is a prime time where more people are out and about and subject to letting their guard down and potentially suffer the consequences of a foggy brain, instead of being aware of their surroundings.

Further research shows that paying attention is essential for effective learning, productivity, and interaction. Here are six different ways of paying attention, each with its distinct characteristics and applications:

1.      Focused Attention: This type involves concentrating on a single task or stimulus while ignoring other distractions. It requires mental effort and is crucial for activities that demand deep concentration, such as reading, studying, or solving complex problems. For instance, a student in a quiet room focusing on a math problem demonstrates focused attention. This type of attention is limited in duration and can be depleted, necessitating breaks to maintain effectiveness.

2.      Sustained Attention: Also known as vigilance, this form of attention involves maintaining focus on a task or stimulus over a prolonged period. It is essential for tasks that require continuous monitoring, like air traffic control or long-distance driving. For example, a security guard watching surveillance footage for extended periods needs sustained attention. It requires a combination of mental endurance and the ability to stay engaged despite potential monotony.

3.      Selective Attention: Selective attention involves focusing on a specific stimulus while filtering out irrelevant information. This type is crucial in environments with multiple competing stimuli, such as listening to a friend in a noisy café. It allows individuals to prioritize important information while ignoring distractions. For instance, a person at a party listening to a specific conversation amid background chatter is utilizing selective attention.

4.      Alternating Attention: This form involves shifting focus between tasks or stimuli that require different cognitive skills. It is essential for multitasking and adapting to changing demands in dynamic environments. For example, a nurse in an emergency room must switch attention between different patients and medical tasks. Alternating attention enables flexibility and efficiency, allowing individuals to handle various tasks without losing track of ongoing activities.

5.      Divided Attention: Often referred to as multitasking, divided attention involves focusing on multiple tasks or stimuli simultaneously. It is useful for handling routine tasks that do not require deep cognitive processing. For instance, a person cooking while listening to a podcast is employing divided attention. However, this type of attention can reduce the effectiveness and accuracy of performing complex tasks, as cognitive resources are split between activities.

6.      Executive Attention: This type involves managing and regulating other forms of attention, particularly in tasks requiring planning, decision-making, error detection, and overcoming habitual responses. It is closely related to executive functions of the brain. For example, a project manager organizing and prioritizing tasks while monitoring progress and adjusting strategies demonstrates executive attention. This type of attention is crucial for goal-directed behavior and problem-solving in complex scenarios.

Each form of attention plays a unique role in cognitive functioning and everyday activities. Understanding and improving these different types of attention can enhance productivity, learning, and overall mental performance, which is an important factor for brain health as we age.

To quote Mary Oliver, a Pulitzer prize-winning American Poet, “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.


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