Coming back to work after a holiday break presents many challenges. We need to reset our circadian rhythms to get up early, remember the password on the computer, and try to focus on a task for longer than 30 seconds before another random thought pops into our heads.
Trying to focus on a task involves attention control – the ability to maintain concentration, or focus, on something over a period of time. What exactly is an attention span? Does it relate to intelligence? Can it change?
We can consider attention in two ways – in terms of space: where do you focus, what is the size of the focus, and how many objects can you process at the same time? And in terms of time – for how long can you concentrate on a task before distraction kicks in?
Sustained attention is the ability to maintain concentration on a task that is repetitive and boring. This time-based attention span can be measured in a number of different ways.
The Continuous Performance Task and the Sustained Attention to Response Task are often used to measure sustained attention. In the latter task, the participant views a series of single digits that appear on a computer screen, each for a very short period of time. In the most boring version of the task, the digits run in a set sequence of 1 to 9, and this sequence is repeated many times.
The participant is asked to press a key when any digit except “3” shows up on the screen. This task runs for just over five minutes and many children and adults will press a key after seeing the “3” at least a few times. Children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) will press after the 3 many more times, on average. Performance improves with the administration of ADHD medication Ritalin.
You might wonder how long the average person is able to do a task before their attention wanes. This depends on the nature of the task and the nature of the individual. If the task is engaging and arousing to the person, then this will lead to better performance on the task.
Many children with ADHD can play computer games for long periods of time, but struggle with the Sustained Attention to Response Task. Our brains are set up to respond quickly and automatically to stimulation from the environment, such as an alarm going off. It takes mental effort to direct attention from within oneself.
Can you change your attention span?
There is an association between being able to maintain attention to a task very well and having a higher estimated intelligence level. But, there’s a problem: in order to measure intelligence, one must maintain attention to the intelligence task.
Your sustained attention performance can change. Your current mental state will have an influence on sustained attention performance. For instance, if you reflect on a time when you failed, you are more likely to perform well and show perseverance on a sustained attention task compared with when you have reflected on a time when you achieved success.
If you are highly anxious, this will have a negative impact on your sustained attention performance. Your current physical state will also have an influence on your attention control. For instance, better sustained attention performance is associated with increased aerobic fitness. Taking either caffeine or theanine, which are both found in tea, significantly improves sustained attention performance.
Sustained attention ability varies over age. A study of 10,430 participants found the ability to consistently respond and correctly detect targets within a task peaks in people aged in their early 40s and is followed by a gradual decline in older adults. Nevertheless, the strategy of responding – how careful one is in detecting the target – improves from 15 years onwards and does not decline with age.
What attention span tells us
This ability to concentrate on a task for a period of time is a very important skill for children to develop. In one study a questionnaire-based measure of attention-span persistence was taken when a large cohort of children was aged four.
Parents answered questions such as: “My child plays with a single toy for long periods of time”, or “My child goes from toy to toy quickly”. The parents responded with a rating of 1 “not at all like my child” up to 5 “a lot like my child”. An estimate of the child’s attention span on a scale of 1 to 5 was then generated from the average of the answers.
Researchers then followed up when the children had become young adults. Attention span-persistence at age four predicted how well each person performed in maths and reading at age 21, and predicted the odds of the person completing college by 25.
So sustained attention underpins control over behaviour and emotions and subsequent academic success.