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.