What is sustained attention and how to work it - With examples

  • Jun 21, 2022
What is sustained attention and how to work it

What do we need when we have to study for an exam? Reading notes, manual pages, and processing information for several hours requires sustained attention. Clearly, the benefit of this cognitive activity will not be immediate, as we will probably discover its effectiveness only on the day of the exam itself.

Sustained attention allows you to focus mental activity over a long period of time. For this reason, it is used in a wide range of tasks that require an ability to concentrate with a constant rhythm over time, that is, our brain focuses its attention on carrying out activities complex. In this Psychology-Online article we will delve into what is sustained attention and how to work it.

You may also like: What are executive functions and how to work them


  1. What is sustained attention
  2. Pathologies associated with sustained attention
  3. How to work sustained attention
  4. Examples of sustained attention

What is sustained attention?

Sustained attention is ability to direct and sustain cognitive activity

on specific stimuli, more specifically to make the mental functions of selection and control of stimuli last. When performing a scheduled task, any sequential action must use sustained attention. From Gangi and Porges[1] consider that sustained attention comprises three stages:

  1. activation of attention: is described as an orientation reflex or "initial alert orientation to a stimulus". This activation depends on the relevance of the stimulus, the subject's past experience, and their individual reactivity to sensory stimulation.
  2. The maintenance of attention: occurs when the activation persists because a stimulus is so new or complex for the subject that it motivates him to process it.
  3. The fall of attention: represents the separation of attention from a stimulus. It can occur due to physical or mental fatigue or because attention is paid to new or different stimuli.

To the concept of sustained attention is added that of supervision, which refers to the ability to control insignificant events and rare. Indeed, vigilance can be considered the "mother of sustained attention."

In turn, surveillance depends on the arousal, that is, the general energetic tone of our cognitive system and the effort dedicated (expression of motivation). Throughout the three stages of sustained attention, the optimal relationship between the arousal and sustained attention is essential in the processes of information processing and learning.

Pathologies associated with sustained attention.

Attention disorders can be divided into three broad categories, depending on the specific attention capacity that becomes impaired. We see them below:

  • sustained attention disorder: the target stimuli can be visual-spatial and auditory-verbal stimuli. This disorder is predominantly in charge of the right hemisphere, which seems more capable, compared to the left, of maintaining attention for a long time. However, sustained attention disorder can also involve injuries to the prefrontal cortex, in the posterior parietal and in the temporal lobe.
  • Down's Syndrome: cognitive deficit with short attention spans, slow reaction times, limitations in short-term memory, reduced capacity for sensory discrimination and hearing defects.
  • ADHD: Children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder have a poor sustained attention span. In fact, their attention spans are very short. If you want to know more, in this article, we tell you what are the types of ADHD and their characteristics.
What is sustained attention and how to work with it - Pathologies associated with sustained attention

How to work sustained attention.

Next, we propose different exercises to work on sustained attention:

  • delete figures: Clear as quickly and correctly as possible all targets that have a certain characteristic. For example, all the squares, or the red symbols, or all the triangles with the point at the top. Two targets can also be deleted together.
  • suppression of numbers: given a target number, the subject must erase all those numbers as quickly and correctly as possible. Two numbers can also be deleted together.
  • Mathematical operations on auditory material: recorded voice, slow and fast version to also intervene in the speed of the informative process. For example, pressing a button if the second number is consecutive to the previous one in the natural series.
  • Mental number series with operations: another of the activities to work on sustained attention that consists of asking the subject to count backwards a certain amount from a certain number. The subject must be fast and precise, for example with the following sequence: 100-96-92-88-etc. Each time he makes a mistake, the subject must start over.

Examples of sustained attention.

Some classic examples to explain sustained attention can be found in the school context. For example, when a boy or girl has to solve a math problem or reading comprehension exercise.

In these situations, the minor must read and understand what is written, create a mental image of the situation described, identify the relevant data, configure the solution, perform the operations correctly in the case of mathematics and give a response. While doing all these sequences, the little one must do the following:

  • be alert in reading and in the different phases (arousal).
  • Select relevant information (selective attention).
  • Keep attention focused on the problem, "resisting" any distraction that might interrupt or interfere with the solution (sustained attention).
What is sustained attention and how to work on it - Examples of sustained attention

This article is merely informative, in Psychology-Online we do not have the power to make a diagnosis or recommend a treatment. We invite you to go to a psychologist to treat your particular case.

If you want to read more articles similar to What is sustained attention and how to work it , we recommend that you enter our category of cognitive psychology.


  1. Marcantoni, M., Fabio, R. A. (2008). The attention. Physiology, pathology and interventional riabilitativi. Milan: Franco Angeli.


  • Muzzarelli, F. (2015). I will guide the learning. Methodology and technique of training in azienda. Milan: Franco Angeli.
instagram viewer