Attention and cognition are interrelated, and they have a significant effect on each other. In simple terms, attention is the ability to focus on desired information or activities for a significant amount of time, and the term cognition refers to thought processes that occur in the brain which usually impact learning. The ability to maintain attention on a subject is needed in order for the thought processes necessary for learning to occur. When attention problems are present, they can seriously interfere with cognition and learning. In contrast, participation in activities that strengthen the ability to pay attention for a sustained period of time has been shown to improve cognition.
There is a direct relationship between attention and cognition. Attention is the ability to attend to specific information and maintain that focus for the required length of time. It also the ability to shut out competing information and stimuli that can form distractions. In order for cognitive thought processes to occur, an individual must be able to pay attention to a particular topic and fully absorb the material being learned.
The ability to pay attention also can limit the ability of the brain to perform cognitive processes, including remembering information, analyzing it, or applying it to new situations. The link between attention and cognition is so strong that, when attention is limited, thought processes are also constrained. For instance, when an individual has a short attention span and he or she is unable to sustain focus on material for a significant length of time, it reduces the ability of the brain to perform cognitive processes that take a while, such as committing information to memory.
When an individual has an attention problem, for example attention deficit disorder (ADD), this can also cause difficulties with cognition. The relationship between attention and cognition means that, when there are attention issues, cognitive processes will also be affected. In most cases, this translates to a negative impact on learning. These individuals often do not have true cognition difficulties though, and, if the attention problem is treated successfully, they are often able to learn and excel.
Even in individuals with average attention spans, the relationship between attention and cognition can be manipulated to improve learning. Often, a person is able to improve attention span through the use of concentrated practice and strategies. Many people believe that participating in arts-related activities, such as playing an instrument, can strengthen the ability to pay attention because they require periods of extended focus and concentration. This often extends to improved cognition and learning in general.