How many kinds of attention are there?


By David Joel Miller

You need more than one kind of paying attention skill

Attention Sign

Attention Sign
Photo courtesy of Flickr (fs999)

One kind of paying attention skill is not enough. From the first day of life, you had to pay attention. As you grew and developed you needed to learn other attention skills. There are reasons why you may have found one kind of paying attention more difficult than another.

In a previous post, we looked at ADHD and how people get the ADHD diagnosis because of behavior. That behavioral deficit gets blamed on the attention paying part. Turns out that we are not all talking about the same thing when we say “pay attention.”

Starting from the day you were born here are the paying attention skills humans need to learn.

1. Alert attention – recognize that there is something out there

From that first day, babies begin to attend to physical sensations. They recognize and respond to hunger and thirst, hot and cold and all the other physical needs.

You will never stop paying attention to those feelings of hunger or the startle response to loud noises.

Many people have their alert attention volume set to high. The result is that a nose in the next room causes them to jump out of their skin. This can result in an anxiety disorder. Some people get ADHD diagnosis because of anxiety not any lack of attention. The just respond to and attend to sights, sounds or smells in an excessive manner. They can’t seem to ignore these Alert attention cures.

Life experiences, single or complex traumas, can increase this startle response form of “paying attention.”

2. Orienting attention.

By three months of age, a baby not only alerts to a stimulus but tracks that stimulus. You hear a sound, you jump. Then you look intently for where this is coming from. You stare at the stimulus. In the meantime, you have forgotten all about what you were doing and thinking about.

This tracking, attending behavior, draws you away from what you were attending to in the first place. This easily distracted form of attention tracking can keep you safe if something dangerous is going on but it can be annoying to other people, notably adults if the child stopped paying attention to the adult to attend to tracking this sudden stimulus.

3. Sustained Attention.

This paying attention skill causes the most problems for most people who end up in therapy. Too much or too little of this attention paying skill gets you an ADHD diagnosis.

In sustained attention, you need to keep your attention on one thing while ignoring all others. So the teacher tells you to read your story book for the next ten minutes. Sustained attention keeps you reading.

People who find that they are paying attention to alerts have problems sustain attention. Someone in the back of the class starts talking you turn around to listen and you get in trouble for “not paying attention.”

If you are good at tracking attention you might see someone walking by the classroom window and you track their progress. You might even get up and walk over to the window to see where they are going. This gets you in trouble for “not paying attention” to your reading despite the fact that you are getting really good at tracking attention.

Too much sustained attention is a bad thing.

After the ten minutes, your teacher tells the class to stop reading it is now time for math. You, having mastered sustained attention, do not hear her and continue to read. You are now attending to the story and it is interesting. The result is you get in trouble for “not paying attention” to what the teacher is saying.

There is a related phenomenon we see in substance abusers. When under the influence of a stimulant drug, methamphetamine, in particular, they have excessive sustained attention. They refer to this as “getting stuck.” The person may begin to clean the kitchen floor and two days later is till down on their knees cleaning the cracks in the tile with a toothbrush. They have become stuck and can’t shift their attention.

This makes me wonder if some of the benefits of stimulant ADHD medications are the result of “Stuck attention” in which the person can sustain the attention for long periods of time but may not be able to use the other forms of “paying attention.”

What you needed at this point is the next form of attention “Executive attention.”

4. Executive attention is the ability to move your attention around as needed.

With good executive attention, you can attend to what you want to or should be attending to. Sometimes as in the last example these two attention demands are in conflict. You want to continue reading but you need to shift your attention and take out your math book. This attention issue is one you will continue to develop across your lifetime.

Remember your first-grade teacher’s demands for attention when you are retired and your spouse asks “where you listening to me?”

5. Selective attention.

Most attention researchers list three kinds of attention. The trouble is they do not list the same three types. Some researchers include selective attention under executive attention others under sustained attention.

What happens is that over time you develop personal rules for how you decide what you will pay attention to. This may have to do with your interests. It may also have to do with how hard you get hit if you do not select the form of attention an adult is expecting.

Worth noting is that problems with selective attention overlap almost all known forms of mental, emotional or behavioral disorders. Defects in selective attention processes are linked to autism spectrum disorders, depression, bipolar disorders, anxiety, psychosis, ADHD, learning disorders, behavioral and conduct disorders.

This makes me wonder if ADHD, or selective attention defects specifically, is a cause of symptoms in these other disorders or is it a symptom of another problem that is not getting recognized until much later in life? You can have ADHD, Anxiety, depression and a substance abuse problem. But which is causing which is another topic.

Stay tuned for more posts on the subjects of attention, ADHD and how you might learn skills to improve your attention.

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For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse and Co-occurring disorders see the about the author page. For information about my other writing work beyond this blog check out my Google+ page or the Facebook author’s page, up under David Joel Miller. Posts to the “books, trainings, and classes” category will tell you about those activities. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com. A list of books I have read and can recommend is over at Recommended Books  

Keep working on your ability to use all the types of paying attention.

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