We often measure attention in units of time. Have you ever heard someone say?…“The average person can only focus their attention for 7 seconds” or “men think about sex once every 15 seconds”. These statements refer to how long we can remain attentive before we are involuntarily pulled by some otherwise unknown factor or stimuli. This type of attention is called Sustained Attention. But what if I told you that your attention span didn’t  just refer to sustainability but rather awareness and adaptability and that there were many types of attention to be aware of. Well…there several other types of attention and your ability to harness them is what determines how much you are able to do, see, be, and achieve.

Selective Attention

As mentioned above…Sustained attention is what most of us think about when determining how good our attentions is. But with just a slight shift in our awareness, we can make the leap into another, more useful, level of attention. Selective attention. This type of attention refers to how well you can pinpoint your attention on a specific stimuli whilst there are many others to choose from. Most of us don’t even choose where to put our attention, but rather we allow external factors choose for us. Imagine being on safari; you’re driven through the bush and most likely your attention rests with whatever animals are in front of you at each moment. Now imagine standing on a hill overlooking a valley of animals, now you are consciously choosing to focus on one, and then another, and then another…all the while you’re being bombarded by peripheral movement from other animals trying to steal your attention away from you. The second scenario closely resembles what it’s like to play golf. There are constantly an overwhelming number of factors that are trying to get your attention: wind, slope, distance, playing competitors, spectators, the time of day…and so on. You are capable of developing the ability to overcome how those factors affect you, and what’s more, you can learn to use this ability to control your surroundings by harnessing your attention and holding it on certain factors. 

The difference between selective and focused attention could be demonstrated by doing the following: Pick a 2-5 min song that you know well and can sing most of the words. Listen to the song once and sing the words. Easy right? Now, listen to the same song and tap your foot to the snare drum that hits every second beat for the full 2-5 minutes. Stay aware of the difference in your minds process as you do the exercise. Look for specific patterns in your thinking and how often you lose attention during the second task. What’s happening here is that you know that words are coming and they help formulate thoughts and keep you engaged without much attentional effort. When you switch to tapping your foot, try and notice if now you are required to input more energy to keep your focus. Playing golf requires more Selective Attention than it does Sustained Attention. Still think there’s no difference…try the two at the same time and see if it doesn’t take a different kind of awareness to do them both.   

Alternating Attention

Keep that song handy for the next form of attention. Alternating attention. This is where you consciously choose to switch your attention between alternating or revolving tasks that may or may not require the same input. We use alternating attention every day, but our ability to do so is most likely reactionary rather than a cognizant choice to apply our attention in various ways.

We can we use the song to understand this concept as well…Now listen to the song, but tap your foot for the verses and sing during the chorus. Try and feel what has to happen as you make the shift from singing to tapping. You might feel that your INTENTION must change first before you can change your ATTENTION from foot tapping to singing. Try to feel your consciousness shifting from searching for the words in your head while singing, and anticipating the beats when tapping your foot.  That is your intention shifting from remembering to preparing just before your attention makes the jump from singing to tapping.

Divided Attention

The most difficult form of attention to master is divided Attention. This is similar to alternating attention, except in the case of divided attention you are able to split your attention between multiple events or stimuli while losing no efficacy in the experience from having to do so. In simple terms, we most often use divided attention to perform daily tasks such as driving or walking since we are able to do both of those things while also leaving some of our attention for observing. This makes divided attention seem like a mundane skill that we developed without even trying, but here is the difference…Driving and observing includes being attentive in the subconscious and the conscious. The subconscious does the driving while our conscious does the observing. This is not technically divided attention as much as it is utilizing two different entities to be attentive, the body and mind. But what if you could divide the conscious attention without losing any acuity.

Listen to the song one last time, but now tap your foot and sing for the entirety of the song. Try and discover if your ability to do both is because you can consciously do both at the same time or if it is because your body (foot) is taken over by the subconscious and the mind is what focuses on the words, or if you must jump quickly with the conscious mind to do both. An example of the great potential that lies within harnessing divided conscious attention can be seen every time you have to reread something that you just read because you had to focus on something else for a moment. For instance, have you ever read a recipe (usually just heating instructions for me) and had to keep picking up the recipe or container to reread the same step over and over. This isn’t because you have a bad memory. I’m sure you’re able to remember things that you’ve read 10 second ago all the time. This is because your attention is being split and you don’t have the ability to keep a hold of the divided pieces. I’m telling you that this is possible and you can do it.

Here is an exercise to help you practice the various forms of attention –

Get a 60 second timer and do the following, sit down in front of a blank space of wall and draw an animal on the wall with your eyes. Pretend that everywhere you focus your eyes leaves a thin colored line. The goal hear is not to draw a perfect elephant or dog or whatever, but the goal is to complete the outline of the animal and hold the entire image in your mind. If you’re drawing with your mind and the outline of the shape breaks anywhere…start over. You can choose simpler shapes to start with. (Square or Triangle), but don’t just place the image on the wall in its entirety all at once. You have to do the drawing with your eyes and develop the ability to see something and hold it while your mind moves on. It will teach you to reach a goal by focusing on the parts that make up the goal and not to lose focus and place too much energy on either the past or the future product.

The timer is not to set parameters to make you move more quickly, but rather give you relief that the exercise will not last too long. Think it will be easy…once you have the image drawn and can hold the entirety of it in your head, try to keep the image on the wall for a full 30 seconds. Eventually you will spend the first 30 seconds drawing with your mind and another 30 seconds holding the image.

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