This famous remark about attention has been made by William James, an early and famous psychologist in the 19th century. Perhaps due to the scientist himself but science still doesn't have a very nice description of the concept today. Most books cover several types of attentional processes like selective, divided and sustained. The modern views incorporate only speed of information processing and control elements in the concept. This last dimension is called 'executive attention', probably because of the popularity and renewed interest in the concept of 'executive functions' nowadays. This executive concept just shows you the struggle scientists have with the total concept. It is supposed to represent the control dimension of it. Actually, I like the concept of 'cognitive control' much better. I invite you to read the works of Miller and Cohen, Todd Braver, but also of Walter Schneider who try to get rid of ambiguous terminology like executive attention or working memory. Furthermore, they really focus on a fundamental feature of our information processing system: it is a Network.
More modern views about our information processing system see it as a connectionist model, a sophisticated network. See also Networks of the Brain (2011) by Sporns, a fantastic book about how mathematics and network theory tries to unravel the workings of our brains. The model of Miller and Cohen (2001 about the function of the prefrontal cortex is highly recommendable just because they really incorporate older (in my opinion outdated) concepts into newer ones and more importantly into a network model. They seem to realize that using older words like concentration or memory really introduce the homunculus problem into the debate. With their model they try to get rid of this homunculus by using the concept of 'cognitive control'. Cognitive control is the ability to select the appropriate (task-relevant) response in the face of competition of (stronger) task-irrelevant responses. And it is exactly this selection that seems to be called selective or focused or executive attention in lots of studies. Furthermore, they actually link these concepts to a fundamental characteristic of our brain: goal-directed behavior. Everything, and I do mean everything we do is based on certain goals. Our brain is fundamentally wired to fulfill its goals. In order to do that it is constantly planning, most of the time in an automatic or unconscious fashion. Karl Friston's theory about the 'free energy principle' states the same principle: the brain tries to predict everything in its surroundings to maintain an equilibrium, both externally as well as internally. Goal-directed behavior is completely focused on maintaining a balance.
So, in this sense, what is attention really? Probably the effort to direct automatic processing towards the right actions in the context of a challenging task. You have less concentration when you do not succeed to efficiently handle all relevant actions towards accomplishing a task-specific goal. I know, putting it like this still sounds a bit foggy but things will clear up a bit when I will give some examples.
When trying to find out what attention is you can study all the scientific literature as I have done extensively. But you can also look at how researchers have tried to operationalize the concept. Meaning: how they translated their ideas about it into real tasks. In this way you can figure out what they really thought of the concept.
The most famous example of how a concept is molded into something concrete is the well-known Stroop phenomenon. It even made it into Nintendo DS Brain Trainer game. It is reading a colored word that is printed in a conflicting color. For example: GREEN printed in red ink. The target behavior is: reading aloud the color of the ink, in this case: saying Red. Of course, the largely automatic reading response forces you to read Green instead of saying Red. Directing your information processing in such a way that you will say Red (instead of Green) is what is supposed to be 'concentration'. When actually doing this task you will notice how it costs some effort, but...you'll quickly get better in doing this task and less concentration or effort is needed. The brain is highly adaptable and can quickly adapt to the new task so that the energetic costs are reduced.
The same goes for another famous and much used test, the Trail Making Test. Be sure to read about this test on my page about Attention Tests. In this test you have to connect circles in which either letters or numbers are displayed (1 to 13 and A to L). However, the sequence has to be: first number, then the Letter, so 1-A, 2-B, 3-C etc). The attentional costs in this test are not that large, especially when you know the alfabet and when you can count quite well. However, the distraction comes from how the stimuli are displayed. Of course, the numbers and letters are displayed randomly on a piece of A4-paper so you have to look and search carefully. This visual search obviously takes some time and that is when your focus is called for. You have to maintain your focus (keep your target/goal in your working memory). Losing this focus means you get a delay in doing this task, even making some mistakes probably. Patients with brain damage have a higher chance of messing up this task and that is being interpreted as having less concentration.
Two main features of most or all attention tests is that they try to measure how well your focus or concentration can be maintained (attention to task), despite distraction in or around the task at hand. Secondly, how much impulsive behavior (task-irrelevant behavior) will be displayed when doing the task at hand. The first feature is of course the key issue of what attention is: it is selective, task-relevant behavior. This focus is usually indirectly measured and it is assumed to take place inside your head. For example, when making a mistake or missing a target in a task, it is assumed that you did not focus enough. No one can be absolutely sure that this was indeed the case! So it is assumed. Just as impulsive behavior is assumed to be a sign or symptom of 'losing focus'. How modern young adolescents who can multitask and do several things at the same time fit into this picture...I can only guess. If such modern gamers can do the test correctly and at the same time can do other things (being impulsive for example), the conclusion could be they are NOT suffering from any form of cognitive deficit. So it is essential that a task is being performed on a high level, meaning with few errors and in a certain amount of time.
This aspect of any attention test, 'time', is seen as relevant as well. When doing a task flawlessly but doing it 6 times longer than average, something has to be wrong with your concentration. It is assumed that concentration is bóth about control (flawless) and speed (not too slow). Just think of baseball and hitting the ball from the pitcher. Swinging your bat too early or too soon has a lot to do with timing, the right speed and is seen as requiring a lot of focus. The control dimension is the way the bat is held and swung (position in space).
What are the examples in daily life in which concentration clearly plays an essential role? I'd like to give several examples in daily life so you can form a pretty good idea what scientists and neuropsychologists do mean when they are talking about attention deficits.
The most mentioned example in daily life is what we all call paying attention. By that we usually mean that we are concentrated on the task at hand, whether this is listening to and understanding what someone is saying to you or doing a difficult job without making any mistakes. That's when we all think 'paying attention' is due and necessary. That's also what most researchers think attention is: focusing on the task that you have to do...and nothing else. Implicitly, in this understanding one normally assumes that there is some distraction but due to concentration someone still can do the job perfectly (without being distracted, i.e. not doing other task-irrelevant actions).
Paying attention, focusing, concentrating, are in essence different words for this same process: goal-directed behavior targeted at the right actions without doing other task-irrelevant actions. It is assumed that to accomplish that we need enough concentration, in our mind. What attention 'in our mind' really is, can not be found anywhere. It is indirectly measured by looking at how we are doing the task. For example, when we make a mistake we conclude that someone was not focused enough, did not concentrate sufficiently. However, when we finish the task quickly without any mistake we simply conclude that we had enough concentration. Notice that in such kind of reasoning we still haven't got a clue of the hidden concept because...it's hidden...in the mind. But luckily we do have PET-, MRI- and SPECT-scans nowadays. We do know now that the mind is set differently when we are focused instead of when we are distracted. So there must be something we cán call 'attention'.
Another example in daily life is taking a note, for example when you hear a new telephone number and you have to write it down. Someone on the other side of the phone quickly says a telephone number and you try to write it down. How many of you haven't got this number right the first time and have to ask for the number a second time? I'll bet most of you. This task, trying to remember the number for a few seconds to write it down, is actually not a memory task but an attention task. And this is really controversial: a lot of scientists would not agree with me on this one. So I'll have to digress here a little bit into the concept of working memory. I will come back to concentration in daily life later.
Attention can NOT be differentiated from our memory processes, although everyone learns this at psychology courses and at the university. The concepts attention, memory, consciousness, information processing, are really concepts we have made up. Just to get a sense, an understanding of what is going on in our mind, in our brains. In fact, conceptualisation or categorization is a game of language, it is playing with words. This entails as well that such a thing as 'attention' is quite something else than such a thing as 'memory'. Intuitively, the choice of words does indeed suggest this. However, in real life, in our brain, attentional processes are not so distinct from memory processes. In fact, most information processes are one continuous stream of neurons firing, in specific ways. Thát's what the connectionistic models, the network models tell us: our brain is a huge network, highly interconnected, both in structure as well as in functions. Really understanding this is quite essential. A wonderful book about such models about Working Memory is Models of working memory (1999) and it clearly shows how several different researchers have made up quite different models about the same phenomenon. The scientific process with all those egos can be considered a blessing because different viewpoints can be handy, or a curse because of the lack of true integrative theorizing.
Returning to my example of listening to someone giving you a telephone number, why do I state so clearly then that this is essentially an task of concentration? Because the information processing model I am using is the one Miller and Cohen have written about: the cognitive control model. It largely overlaps with the concept of executive attention in Shiffrin and Schneider's model (1977) and Norman and Shallice's model of the Supervisory Attentional System (SAS). To focus for a brief moment on the task so that further processing on the stimuli can be possible. Scientists have named such a hypothetical workspace (since there is no real space) in which such things can happen working memory. See also Wikipedia about this topic. The concept of Working Memory is highly popular right now due to a book by Torkel Klingberg called "the overflowing brain: information overload and the limits of working memory" (2008). A very well chosen title in this contemporary era of information overload. Klingberg tries to explain the difference between attention and working memory but does not succeed entirely: the two concepts are almost the same. In our mind, brain, we have to have a certain work'space' in which a limited number of resources can be used in a specific amount of time to process something. Due to the way neurons are built there just is a limitation on our information processing capacity, so we have to select whát we are going to process. This selection is called 'attention' and we still do not have a 100% idea of how this is accomplished.
So, the temporary activation of Long Term Memory is what can be considered 'working memory'. If you are willing to see áll activation as part of this working memory then working memory is much larger than normally is assumed. In fact, the so-called automatic or unconscious activation of LTM-items has a very large capacity and is called iconic memory (in the visual domain) and echoic memory (in the auditory domain). Just read Wikipedia about these concepts. In science, the consensus is that Working memory is not composed of iconic memory. Rather, it is related to the selection process in which some items that were activated are chosen to being processed, and therefore held longer our processing space, hence the term working memory.
I am arguing here that just this selection process is what we call attention. In my understanding of all the theorizing and models, working memory is attention. To make it more complicated: this selection is both unconscious (a larger amount) and conscious. Probably due to constant misdefinitions and not using words carefully (remember: scientists are nót philosophers), researchers mess up concepts like attention, working memory and consciousness. Viktor Lamme, 'our' Dutch professor in neuroscience has done some excellent work in this field in trying to differentiate consciousness from attention. He, just as Cowan, Miller and Cohen and others, clearly shows that attention is both conscious and largely unconscious processing. However, in most attention or cognitive control models the definition of attention is either vague or strongly suggesting that it is conscious processing. Implying that we consciously choose whát has to be processed. To be exact - and Viktor Lamme's work clearly proves it - there is NO choosing via our consciousness! It is the other way around: the selection of what will be processed has already taken place, before we become conscious of it! That's why Lamme and other scientists have stated that there is no free will. However, I agree with Daniel Dennett when he says scientists are NOT philosophers and they make a fundamental logical reasoning mistake. They confuse free will with determinism and moral reasoning. I will try to explain this on another page about Free will, being mad and insanity.
To summarize briefly, temporary activation of items in our Long term memory is working memory but science wants us to believe that only a sufficient amount of 'holding time' can be called working memory. Because only when working on specific activated items this can be called attention. Such 'working on' is both unconscious (automatic) processing with a large capacity, and conscious with a very limited capacity. This last part is normally what is considered in research models to be Attention.
Exactly hów specific processing is selected without introducing the homunculus problem in a model, is unknown. Scientists have tried to introduce concepts as Supervisory Attention System (Norman and Shallice), Central Executive (Baddeley), Attention Director (Shiffrin and Schneider), executive attention to explain hów the selection process actually works. But in using such terminology they have failed to get rid of the homonculus problem (you can always ask in their models: who is the director, the executive mind?) and they constantly confuse conscious processing and attention.
Fortunately, there are other scientists who have a more integrative philosophy like Cowan in his wonderful book Attention and Memory: an integrated framework. Or the works of Miller, Cohen and Braver about cognitive control. I think they hit the nail on the head. Attention is a prerequisit for adequate consolidation into long term memory store. Let me give an example in daily life. When hearing a telephone number we automatically (unconsciously) process what kind of voice it was, in what kind of room we are sitting in, how the smell in the room was, what emotional tone in the voice was present, etc. This is part of our very short term iconic or echoic memory. However, such information is not really task-relevant. What is relevant are the exact numbers in one specific sequence. Thát's where the focus should be on. Elements in the Goal-setting prefrontal cortex regulate this focussing (as Miller and Cohen explain) and only then we can write down the number on a piece of paper. That was our goal and our ónly goal! It was NO memory task from the start. That's also the reason that normally you do NOT recall this number again when you go ahead and start doing something else. Because, you just paid attention to the relevant task: jotting down the numbers, nothing more, nothing less. Your brain did not tap into the resources to actually consolidate these numbers into your long term memory store. That would take much more attention and time.
Actually, this holding your focus during a specific amount of time to process all information correctly, despite distraction is the second most common meaning of 'attention' as we all understand it in daily life. Everybody has experienced the following example: you are busy cooking and have just put a pan on the stove. Suddenly the phone rings and its your best friend. Enthousiastically you get into a small conversation with him/her. However, you forgot to turn the gas off and when you finally realize this your dinner is... Another example is that you are busy at your work and someone comes rushing in and asks you a favor, in just about half a minute. Yeah sure, is your answer and you are caught up in your busy work the following hours. Returning home and the next morning this fellow comes in again, asking whether you have done what he asked you to. Oops, forgotten. Again, in these examples, most people think their memory is at stake. But it isn't: it's their focus. They did NOT pay enough attention to these tasks.
To be exact: a sufficient amount of focus or concentration is necessary to adequately process a task at hand. That includes sufficient processing time (also called elaborate processing) and using sufficient processing resources. All processing takes place in what scientists like to call the 'working memory' space. It is assumed that sufficient and adequate processing can only take place in this (limited) working memory. In other words: when sufficient attention is allocated to the task at hand.
Up till now I have talked about two forms of attention which aren't really two different types: paying attention and holding your focus sufficiently long despite distraction. Paying attention is scientifically called 'selective attention' and holding your focus sufficiently long is usually called 'sustained attention'. This sustained attention is in essence the same process as selective attention, however, it is per definition longer in duration.
For all readers who lost track in the above story I have drawn a graphic in which the integrative vision about attention and working memory hopefully will become clear:
As said before it is essential for a correct execution of every task that processing can be done sufficiently long. First of all, processing must be targeted at the right sort of task demands. In trying to write down a telephone number, you must concentrate on the numbers being spoken by the other person. It has no use to think about other numbers during the time you are being told those numbers. That would indeed interfere with your task to remember these numbers correctly. So it is paramount to shut down all other processes and focus on those numbers, trying not to be distracted by other things around (or other internal thoughts).
Not only is it important to focus on the relevant task aspects but also you need to do that for a sufficient amount of time. When the other person tells you a 10-digit telephone number in just 1 second - way too fast - your system will not get the right amount of time to process all numbers correctly. You'll then must ask for repeating these numbers more slowly.
The focusing aspect of attention, i.e. holding it sufficiently long in your working memory space, actually is a repetition process, nothing more nothing less. It is the dorsal prefrontal cortex who can coordinate and stimulate this repetition process. The strength of this repetition process depends on several biological factors like sufficient oxygen and blood glucose intake, how much you are tired (had enough sleep, rest, eat), the condition of your brain (having trained a lot everyday, meaning: doing a lot of mental work or not) and overall physical fitness (not having a flu or cold). Also genetic factors do count: some people are just lucky and naturally do have a strong working memory. But hey, this working memory space and efficiency can be trained, according to Klingberg. However, all evidence mostly comes from relatively small studies, largely done with children. And...a child's brain is much more flexible and trainable than an adult's brain. See also my page about Brain Injury Recovery.
The bad news is that this kind of focusing and repetition in Working Memory space costs a lot of (metabolic) energy (oxygen, glucose). Therefore, it can not be maintained very long (30 to 90 seconds) and after such time the information can better be transferred to a longer storage system, the Long Term Memory Store (LTS). So...only then it becomes a memory task: it can be consolidated, transferred to LTS, in normal words: stored. How you can do that most efficiently I'll explain on my page about the Fundamentals of Memory Training.
During the repetition process the Working memory space is smaller because this repetition process takes some processing space. Now the chances of being distracted are the highest. Imagine you are on the phone and you are told about 10 numbers. You want to write them down and you are desperately searching for a notepad and...a pen. During this search you are likely being distracted by this search and you'll forget the numbers you just heard. Furthermore, while searching for a pen you are being disturbed by your daughter who asks you something. Such kind of distractions right at that moment are disastrous for your focusing, for your repetition process. Most likely, you will have to ask those numbers again.
The same goes for an intention that just popped up in your mind during cooking. For example, you just remembered during cooking that you left a small present for your partner in the pocket of your coat. So in order not to forget this you instantly create the goal to fetch this present. At the same time your meal needs your focus because it's almost burnt. You execute the right necessary emergency actions to save your meal but thát's just enough to fill your limited working memory space. In other words, your focus was only shortly completely directed towards something else, but that's enough to loose your focus on the intentional goal to fetch the present from out of your coat. Only when your partner arrives you'll be cued and remember this present.
Reminders are daily life: everytime we run around, are busy, we get constantly bombarded with reminders of doing something in the near future. If we do not concentrate enough on such reminders and do not process them sufficiently long to transfer them into our LTS, then it is almost certain that we will forget them. So, our cognitive system must be strong enough to start the consolidation or storing process.
Attention is focusing on task relevant items, processing the right task elements to reach your goal. Distraction actually is the processing of task-irrelevant elements. Either internally triggered (wandering thoughts, images) or externally (being distracted by your daughter asking something). But what about impulsivity? Well, impulsivity is something different than just being distracted, although the concepts are related. Impulsivity is often related to a poor (weak) cognitive system just as in Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). However, having a poor concentration does not necessarily mean that someone is automatically impulsive. In science, impulsivity is linked to active (task-irrelevant) behavior. It is an active (not passive) form of behavior, usually quite simple to observe and describe. I have had seriously brain damaged patients who could not focus long enough on a task, could not hold their task goal in their minds but...they then just stopped with the task. They did not know what to do when losing their focus, so they came to a full stop...doing nothing. In such a state they were highly likely to being distracted by other thoughts or other external distractions. Yes. But they did not engage in other behavior, they were not impulsive.
Of course, there are patients who have a poor focus and easily loose track. Obviously, they are much easier distracted by other thoughts or external stimuli than people who really can focus long enough. And only when such patients are eager to act on such distractions they can be called impulsive. Such patients can become quite dangerous in that they can not focus on a task they are asked to do and engage too easily in other things they usually shouldn't do. They tend to forget more often relevant task items. A patient being paralyzed on his left body side, sitting in a wheel chair, can forget the instruction not to stand up spontaneously because of the chance of falling. Especially when this patient is doing a task such as putting his T-shirt on...because normally after having put his T-shirt on he would stand up to put his trousers on. In the early stages of a stroke (form of brain damage usually leading to a half-sided paralysis) most such patients do indeed 'forget' such new facts that they can not stand normally. Actually, this is not forgetting, it is not focusing enough on relevant task instructions so that older (overlearned) task routines (automatically standing up after putting on your T-shirt) do get started. That's just how our fully automatic brain works.
So: distractability can lead to impulsivity but not necessarily so.It largely depends on how strong emotions flare up and how strong the inhibition system in the frontal lobes is. Furthermore, it depends as well on the so-called arousal system in the lower parts of our brain. To put it simply: when you are drowsy, nearly falling to sleep, there’s not much chance to get very impulsive.
Attention has roughly too dimensions: a selectivity due to the limited capacity of our information processing system, and intensity. This intensity of attention has a lot to do with hów alert we really are. In science this aspect is usually called ‘tonic’ and ‘phasic’ alertness. The tonic form is the more stable day-to-day alertness level of attention, highly modulated by so-called circadian rhythms in our body. These are rhythms of our blood pressure or certain hormones being higher in the morning than in the evening. Our so-called post-lunch dip has a lot to do with such bodily rhythms. Normally, we are less alert around 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning and that’s exactly the reason why an arrest team of the police starts bouncing on your door around that time.
The phasic alertness is highly fluctuating every minute, largely regulated by our amygdala (part of our emotional brain, regulating anger and fear), hippocampus and pituitary. Neurotransmitters like noradrenaline, acetylcholine, dopamine and serotonine regulate this kind of attention in an extremely complex manner and no one knows how this all is exactly done. For now, it is important to remember that we are capable of increasing our attentional intensity in a second. For example, when we suddenly find ourselves in front of a tiger in a tourist walk through a ‘safe’ jungle area. All processing resources at that moment are directed towards all necessary actions to either flee or fight (of course, we wouldn’t bet on any of them faced with an angry tiger).
So emotions can and do influence our cognitive systems, actually quite a bit more than science used to admit. Nowadays, this area of hot cognition is studied much more than say 40 years ago. Just like in those days emotions were largely discarded and neglected, at home, at school, at work and in science. Now, science finally has matured and recognizes the enormous and complex impact of emotions on our cognition (e.g. attention, memory, problem solving). Probably this also has a lot to do with the fact that many more females are involved in scientific research (although this is rarely recognized…by male scientists).
Okay. Now we know that our concentration can fluctuate during a day, even during each second, so during a task. Unlike a computer with a working memory that is quite stable (due to constant electricity), we as humans actually have a fluctuating working memory, a fluctuating focus. What is even more interesting is that information processing costs energy, more specifically: it costs glucose (blood sugar) and oxygen. When you read my page about Best Treatment of Fatigue after Brain Injury, you will better understand this energetic workload. Simply due to attentional resources that are allocated to all the tasks (things) we do. That is why a complex exam or a difficult tennis match beats the hell out of you. A large misconception is that that’s because it takes a lot of physical energy. Everyone seems to understand that jogging or playing a 2-hour tennis match can be exhausting. However, when I tell you that standing in front of a high school class with 34 students aged around 14, is much much more exhausting than a tennis match, initially no one wants to believe me. Or working all day in a toddler’s kindergarten with all the noise and 20 toddlers walking around like crazy, thát’s taking up a lot of attention (thus energy). People who have done this know what I am talking about. These unknown facts are largely due to the popular misconception that our brain can not really get fatigued, but our body can. Well, our brain is a part of our body! Actually, it takes up about 20% of all oxygen we inhale and about the same amount of blood glucose. More than any organ in our body, as far as I can tell.
So when concentrating for an hour or even longer, puts a high drain on our energy reserves. We get fatigued quite severly. There have been done lots of studies in the human factors branch of science where this is documented quite well. We also know that constant work shifts (mid-day, at night, early morning) without much time to rest in between are quite a strain on our brain and body. In essence, the simple rule is: the more attention is needed to do a job, the more energetic it is, the more energy resources are needed, the quicker we get tired. Just ask an air traffic controller after his shift in the middle of the holiday season how he feels. Or ask a surgeon who has just done an 8-hour operation in a very delicate area (for example, the brain, near the brain stem). All such activities are not really physical, I mean, they don’t move around much. But hell, they are very very attention-demanding and so mentally tiresome. A final example: why do you think good formula one drivers have to be so physically fit, like Michael Schumacher? Not just because they get all the G-forces on their bodies. No, because to maintain a very high speed ánd manage each curve during 100 laps or more, is highly, very highly attention-demanding. One lapse of attention and it could be over. Literally.
To summarize: concentrating with high intensity takes a lot of energy. It drains your battery, just like your laptop’s battery is drained much quicker when working with large applications. When this high intensity can not be maintained much longer on such a high level, concentration starts to diminish or wander. Thát’s when the risk of making mistakes (=doing task-irrelevant actions) increases quite quickly. That’s when lapses of attention tend to occur more often. We are not machines with a steady flow of power: in our brains it fluctuates constantly. We should be aware of this much more than we do, in order to prevent serious mistakes in our jobs.
In daily life one of our major challenges is overcoming boredom: “an emotional state which is experienced when an individual is left without anything in particular to do” (according to Wikipedia). In science a lot of research has been done on the subject of ‘arousal’. Being too aroused is overloading your cognitive systems leading to stress and mistakes, but being too underaroused (boring) means too little concentration to tasks, leading to…stress and mistakes. Just look in Wikipedia for Yerkes-Dodson’s law that describes the reversed U-shaped relation between arousal and task performance. Everyone in daily life has experienced this. Just think of your high school days whenever you had a boring teacher or lesson in which you could not keep up your concentration for long. Remember as well the lessons or a lecture which was given by an inspiring teacher. How quickly time went by in such a lesson! Again, this shows how passion, emotions can trigger our intensity of attention. And how boredom can drop this intensity level with dramatic consequences. That’s the simple reason that many more car accidents happen on roads where there is not much traffic around: we simply stop concentrating sufficiently on such roads. And then, when suddenly something happens, we usually react to late or inadequate.
What can cause boredom? Well, you already know the answers. Routine is deadly. Our brain just isn’t build for daily routines, we get bored, underaroused, less stimulated. Especially, our dopamine system is triggered insufficiently. So our intensity of concentration drops to low levels, increasing the risk of getting distracted or becoming more impulsive (to get our kicks so to speak). Now, there are large individuals differences between people when it comes to getting bored, or getting used to routines. There are some who are blessed with a slow habituation system, meaning they don’t get easily used to something, even when it concerns a routine activity. But most people do have a rather quick habituation system (just like me) so they have to constantly find a way to keep their motivation up and their alertness levels high. That takes either constantly changing tasks or jobs, or being mentally very creative in order to develop new ways to look at things or doing things.
Another, higher level factor of becoming bored, is much overlooked: meaning. Our brain has one very fundamental characteristic: it constantly seeks meaning. I am not sure why but it has probably a lot to do with our symbol-manipulating information processing system, our language and conceptual system. When things around us do evolve, do take place, our brain is constantly working to either predict these things or to react on them. We are wired to plan, predict in order to maintain a certain kind of equilibrium. Books like Damasio’s Self comes to mind (2012) explain this perfectly. Also the literature about post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and its treatment EMDR are filled with amazing stories about how people react to heavy emotional traumas and all are trying to find some meaning in what they have experienced. When they can’t, they get stuck (what’s called PTSD). When they do find meaning, through EMDR for example, they finally start moving further. That’s the main reason we ALL want to know What Is the Meaning of Our Lives? In all religions we find this question and…often its answer.
In my upcoming book about just this subject, the meaning of it all, the meaning of our lives here, I digress a little into philosophy and ethics to come up with a non-religious but highly spiritual answer for this question, heavily based on what we nowadays know about our brain. Just follow this website and follow me on Twitter. Stay tuned!
Attention is a multi-faceted concept encompassing concepts like selectivity, intensity, speed of processing, working memory, inhibition, impulsivity, distractability, fatigue and boredom. But actually it is about keeping task-relevant goals up so that our processing system can perform relevant actions in an efficient way, not to waste too much energy and accomplish a task at hand with sufficient quality.