Why Attention Matters
Attention could be described as a spotlight that focuses an individual's awareness on a particular facet of their environment, or on the thoughts in their head. The ability to pay attention to important things—and to ignore the rest—likely helped early humans survive and evolve. Now, it’s a skill that can help children and adults alike succeed in school, at work, and in their relationships.
Some people—particularly those with ADHD or other mental health concerns—regularly struggle to pay attention when it matters, while others naturally have more control over their “spotlight.” For most people, the ability to pay attention varies in certain situations—for instance, when they're able to work in a distraction-free environment—or with the aid of certain drugs such as caffeine, Ritalin, or other stimulants.
Humans can be distracted both by internal forces, like wandering thoughts, and external cues, like the inviting ping of a text message. When an individual's brain wants to be distracted, it can feel almost impossible to force themselves to pay attention—particularly if the task they're trying to focus on is boring or difficult. But some researchers who study attention view it as sort of “muscle” that can be strengthened with practice, and have hypothesized that certain strategies or techniques may be effective at building attention capacity over the long-term. One strategy that’s gained significant ground in recent years is mindfulness, a form of meditation that cultivates the brain’s ability to direct its attention to specific cues.