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 one to nine, and this sequence is repeated many times.
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The participant is asked to press a key when any digit except three 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 three at least a few times. Children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) will press after the three 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.