What Is the Connection Between Attention and Cognition?

Some people find it hard to stay attentive in class.
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  • Written By: J.M. Densing
  • Edited By: E. E. Hubbard
  • Last Modified Date: 18 June 2014
  • Copyright Protected:
    2003-2014
    Conjecture Corporation
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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.

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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 such 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.

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Discuss this Article

healthy4life
Post 4

@shell4life – My husband went to his doctor to try to get help for his ADD, but his doctor told him that he would have to be tested by a psychiatrist. Only then could he give him a prescription for ADD medicine.

My husband was 26 when he went, and though he had dealt with problems because of it all his life, his parents never took him to have him tested. He failed several grades and didn't finish high school because of his lack of attention.

Four-hundred dollars later, we had a diagnosis. My husband got his medication, and now, he can actually remember important things like turning off the oven before leaving the house. He can even complete tasks around the house, which was impossible for him before.

shell4life
Post 3

I really think my brother might have ADD. He isn't doing well in school at all, and I've noticed some of the warning signs.

He can't even listen to one full sentence when I'm talking to him. He gets distracted by everything from insects that fly by to random thoughts that pop in his head. If he has a thought while I'm talking, he just blurts it out and doesn't even apologize for interrupting me.

How is ADD diagnosed? Do we just go to a regular doctor, or do we need to see a specialist?

OeKc05
Post 2

@giddion – I wish I were able to do this. I find myself becoming distracted while reading, and I often have to reread an entire paragraph, because my mind wandered off the first time I read it and I have no idea what it said.

The same thing happens when I'm listening to a speaker. I just can't keep my mind on what he or she is saying for more than a few minutes.

Honestly, I think that the busy lifestyle of our age is to blame for this. I had no problem learning in school, and I was able to write intelligent papers in college. Only in the past decade have I found myself so terribly distracted and unable to concentrate.

If I went back to college now, I probably couldn't learn anything. It's terrible what life can do to a person's mind!

giddion
Post 1

I am a multi-tasker, so my attention span is somewhat divided. I don't get distracted by random things, but I do stop doing one task in order to take care of another when it's necessary.

However, I have no problem learning and working things out in my head. Even though I might have only ten minutes to read or listen to something each day, my mind is completely committed during those ten minutes to what I'm reading or hearing. I have learned to set aside time for certain things, and even though I have so much to do, I can focus.

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