Defined as ‘the length of time for which a person is able to concentrate mentally on a particular activity,’ attention refers to where we direct our thoughts (and, for how long).
“Attention is the sort of overarching, colloquially used term, but it can mean many, many things,” says Elizabeth Ricker, neuroscientist and author of Smarter Tomorrow: How 15 Minutes of Neurohacking A Day Can Help You Work Better, Think Faster, and Get More Done. “When we talk about executive function (the more formal term for what attention can often fall under), it’s composed of working memory (your ability to move from one idea to the next) and inhibition (the ability to inhibit unwanted thoughts or behaviors).”
There are an infinite number of things happening around us at all times, but the brain can only process so much. To illustrate how our brains decide what to pay attention to, psychologists use the classic example of a cocktail party.
At this cocktail party, you could focus on any number of stimuli in a room: the music playing, the sound of glasses clinking, the person walking by, or the conversation happening behind you. Thanks to the brain’s filtering processes, you’ll usually tune in the person in front of you, with surrounding sights and sounds blurring into mere background noise. But say someone walks by and says your name. Even though you weren’t previously paying attention to their conversation, it now comes into focus as the person in front of you fades into the background.
Of course, for someone with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), this process can be more difficult. Both conditions present challenges with executive functioning2, which includes attention and focus. This can be compounded by overly sensitive sensory systems3, which make it easier to focus on certain sounds and stimuli in the environment and harder to tune other ones out. (You can read more about how ASD and ADHD affect women specifically in our 2023 wellness trend.)