what is attention/focus, Themba Tutors

What is Attention/Focus?

What is Attention/Focus:

Definitions, Types, and Other Factors That Affect Your Mind


It is an established fact that the brain is a complex organ, so it’s not surprising that there are parts of it that we are yet to understand. Cognitive psychology is a branch of psychology that studies our internal mental processes, including perception, thinking, memory, language, problem-solving, learning, and attention. 

The way a person acts, speaks, learns, or even behaves says much about their personalities. So their behavioral patterns can either be the same or different from one another. And according to cognitive psychology, there are significant aspects of human behavior that are highly dependent on our level of attention. It’s because of attention that we are able to focus, concentrate, or grasp our surroundings.

So what is attention/focus?  And what are the related factors that affect our minds and behaviors?


What is Attention/Focus and Its Types?


Attention involves selective sensory inputs as part of our conscious experience. In simple words, it is a process that involves focus and attention while competing with stimuli and available information in your surroundings. There is also a significant connection between attention and executive functioning disorder.

The conscious experience varies from person to person. Two or more kids in a similar environment can still have very distinct experiences. 

For instance, observe a classroom. It’s safe to say that the attention span of each student varies and is directly related to the positive or negative feelings they may have in that particular period. Some students find science an interesting subject, and others may feel that math is not their cup of tea. The more a student shows interest in a certain topic, the more attentive he or she will be and vice versa. 

John B. Watson was one of the first thinkers to prove that behavior changes occur due to the learning process, and learning is parallel to the attention of an individual. 

Attention helps in your awareness and consciousness, but it can also be selective (like focusing on a particular object). It allows an individual to tune out any less “relevant” information, perception, or even sensation from the environment. An individual’s level of attention is influenced by a number of factors.


What Are the Factors That Influence Attention?


Attention is a two-way process, and to fully understand what is attention/focus, we must look at the factors that pique or diminish our interest or attention towards something.

These factors are stimulus-based, known or hidden, that trigger our cognitive function leading towards cognitive processing. These factors are classified into two major categories. 


Internal Factors


The determinants are personal, depending on your own cognitive resources (and brain function). It indicates the mental state of the perceiver.  Some of the most common internal factors influencing attention are; 

  • Interests

We naturally give our attention to objects, subjects, or events that interest us. Take your Netflix or YouTube watch history, for example. Chances are, the shows you’ve watched and channels you’ve followed fall under similar genres. In our daily lives, we are more attentive towards the stimulus that we are most interested in. 

  • Motive

What is the intention of a burglar entering a home? To find certain items of value he can sell or keep for himself. The motive is an actual representation of our basic needs. However, in most cases, external factors play a dominating role in shaping one’s motive behind their actions and behavior. Usually, our basic needs drive our attention towards satisfying thirst, hunger, fear, and other stimuli. 

  • Mindset

The individuals’ readiness to act in certain situations determines his attention. For instance, students expecting an exam by the end of the semester would tend to focus their attention on the timetable to prepare for the test. 

  • Attitudes and Moods

It’s no secret that puberty can be a challenging time for teenagers, thanks to all the hormonal changes that affect a person’s moods and attitude. Mood swings can easily shift one’s attention, and attitude often determines a person’s willingness and ability to focus.


External Factors


As the phrase suggests, external factors influencing our attention are based on stimuli from our surroundings. We have no control whatsoever over it. The internal factors mentioned above are directly dependent on external factors. Some of the common external factors that determine our attention are:

  • Nature of Stimulus

Every stimulus is different, so it’s understood that the degree of attention will vary with every one of them. Some individuals are more attracted to visual stimuli than auditory, primarily because they have stronger visual skills than hearing or listening. In a school setting, some students learn better with the help of visual representation, such as videos and photos. The more effective a stimulus is, the higher the attention level is. 

  • Size and Intensity of Stimulus

The bigger, brighter, and louder a stimuli is, the more it commands our attention. Just like how the scent of freshly baked cookies can distract you from studying.

  • Repetition of Stimulus 

Do you remember the popular classical conditioning experiment by Pavlov? The repetition of giving meat after a bell secured the dog’s attention. In the beginning, the dog ignored the stimulus, but after several repetitions, it captured its attention.  Similarly, a student repeating the same mistake in an equation will draw the teacher’s attention to signaling that the individual lost its focus sometime during the lesson. 

  • Movement of Stimulus

Was that a large-sized pizza the waiter served on the next table? If you are hungry and waiting for the server to take your order, that pizza on the other table would definitely catch your attention. A moving stimulus catches attention quicker. Sure, the internal factor plays its part here, in this case, you were feeling hungry. So the passing orders will catch your attention. But if you were enjoying your meal, you would not give a second thought to what’s being placed on the next table. 

what is attention/focus, Themba Tutors

What Are the Types of Attention?


Attention is a process, not a product. It helps you to stay sharp and allows you to focus on objects and your surroundings.  It is divided into four types.



Also known as undivided attention, sustained attention is the type of focus needed when trying to accomplish major tasks that require consistency and increased mental activity —such as studying for an exam, following a complicated recipe, or driving on an unfamiliar road.


Not all activities require your full attention. A cook, for example, is used to doing several things at the same time—like cutting vegetables while frying a fish. Instead of giving one task all your focus, divided attention requires mental focus on a larger scale. Also known as multitasking, divided attention does not last as long as sustained attention.


If you are a bookworm, you must have experienced selective attention more than you realize. It’s often easy to get lost in the world of imagination while reading, and you tune out other things around you. This is selective attention. You ignore what’s going on in your surroundings while you are focusing on a single task.


Individuals who are mentally flexible are able to shift their focus among different tasks at the same time. Unlike multitasking, their attention towards one task does not diminish or limit their performance in other tasks.

It is crucial for individuals, especially parents, to understand that developing attention may not always be the easiest for a child to do. To improve one’s focus, a parent, teacher, or guardian must take into consideration the internal and external factors that can help or hinder a student.


Read more about how to help your child stay focused and motivated:

  1. Top 10 Apps to Help You Focus/Stay Organized
  2. How a Tutor Can Help Motivate Your Teen to Excel in School



Looking to develop your child’s attention/focus?
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what is attention/focus, Themba Tutors

Craig Selinger

Owner at Themba Tutors
Craig Selinger, CEO of Themba Tutors (serving Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, Bronx, Westchester, Long Island, New Jersey, and Connecticut), is a NY State licensed speech-language pathologist, executive functioning coach, and learning specialist with over 18 years of experience working professionally with over a thousand families. His expertise includes language-based learning issues, e.g. reading, writing, speaking, and listening, executive functioning, ADHD/ADD, and learning disabilities. Check out his interviews with top-notch professionals in the field on Spotify.
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