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What Is Focal Attention?

By Bethany Keene
Updated Feb 09, 2024
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Focal attention refers to a type of attention in which the individual is deliberately, consciously focused on a certain thing to the exclusion of surrounding images or noises. Automatic attention occurs when an individual's attention is drawn by something; for instance, a loud noise might cause someone to look up or lose focus, and is in many cases a response that cannot be controlled. Focal attention is intense deliberate concentration, and is a skill that can be practiced. It may also be referred to as object-oriented attention, if the individual is focused on a particular sense or object to the exclusion of others.

People capable of maintaining focal attention are typically able to concentrate better and accomplish tasks with more ease than those that have trouble maintaining their concentration on a particular point. It is natural, evolutionarily speaking, for the brain's attention to be drawn to changes in the environment. Some people find that they need to deliberately minimize distractions when they are working in order to use their focal attention, while others are better at "tuning out" interruptions. Most people are capable of doing this to some degree, even if they don't realize it; for instance, engaging in a conservation with one person in a noisy crowd or party is an example of focal attention and filtering out the surrounding noise.

Some individuals also use focal attention when meditating, which is not only a great way to improve overall concentration abilities, but is also a way to relieve stress in everyday life. Some people will focus on breath, while others may focus on a particular mantra or repeated phrase. Focusing on any one of the five senses -- smell, touch, taste, sight, or hearing -- is an example of focal attention. Some people practice this throughout the day as a type of miniature meditation and a way of practicing awareness.

It is not possible, or even desirable, to remain in focal attention one hundred percent of the time. Many activities, like driving a car, for example, require constantly shifting attention for the sale of safety. An individual's concentration and focus will naturally be interrupted by automatic attention throughout the day, not just because it is necessary to notice what is happening in the surrounding environment, but also to give the brain a rest. Researchers study the psychology of focused and automatic attention to see how they complement each other, what part of the brain is in use for each type of attention, and how individuals can use this information to improve their cognition. This is especially important for those suffering from certain types of attention-deficit disorder, who may find themselves distracted to an impossible degree throughout the day.

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Discussion Comments

By literally45 — On Oct 12, 2014

@donasmrs-- I think we can develop it, but I'm sure that people still are born with a certain capacity limit. We can develop it to that capacity, but what's beyond that, we probably can't do.

I actually don't think that focal attention and ignoring other things are disadvantages. I think it helps us prioritize information. There is only so much that we can store in our memory and focal attention is just about determining what's important enough to retain.

By donasmrs — On Oct 12, 2014

@ddljohn-- That's an interesting example from popular culture. So do you think that different people have different capacities for focal attention?

As far as I know, someone of these qualities of the Sherlock Holmes character truly existed in real life. So focal attention may be a talent that we are born with, or it might be something that we can develop with practice.

By ddljohn — On Oct 11, 2014

The Sherlock Holmes character, popular in many books, TV series and films, seems to be an expert on focal attention. His area of expertise is deductive reasoning but he has extraordinary talents in observation. Some TV series actually show it as an ability o use focal attention far more and more efficiently than normal people.

For example, Holmes, within a mere seconds can zoom in on numerous little details at a crime scene to come to many different conclusions about the crime, criminal and victim.

Most of us have the ability to give our attention to only one or two things at a time. We usually ignore the rest because we can only process so much information at once. But the Sherlock Holmes character can focus his attention to more things and actually process them without being overwhelmed.

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