Attention Lapses – Why it Is So Difficult to Stay Focused

June 8, 2016 Katharina Lochner
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Why is it sometimes so hard to stay focused and to stay attentive?

At times maybe the task we are performing is incredibly boring, so our minds start wandering off, for example when we drive on an empty highway at night for hours. This happens although we are well aware that attention lapses come at an extremely high cost – we might die. But this does not seem to guarantee we stay attentive. Why is this and what can we do to stay attentive in these cases?

In an article in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, David R. Thomson, Derek Besner, and Daniel Smilek from the University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, review a few approaches that can explain this fact. The idea behind most approaches is that there is a so-called vigilance decrement, so vigilance declines as a function of time on task. So-called overload theories, on the one hand, posit that vigilance is effortful and depletes information processing resources. So-called underload theories, on the other hand, state that monotonous tasks cause attention to drift away. There are two kinds of underload hypotheses: The mindlessness hypothesis posits that in monotonous tasks, as a function of time on task, our mind starts responding automatically and unrelated to what is really happening. The mind-wandering hypothesis, by contrast, states that when perceptual input fails to hold up someone’s attention, the mind tends towards task-unrelated, self-generated thought.

David Thomson and colleagues introduce a new theory that takes into account various findings and seems to be able to unite the aforementioned theories. One interesting key point in their theory is that the default state of our mind is self-generated thought, and that we will move into this default state unless we actively invest effort into staying focused. But how can we achieve this?

In an article on the BBC website, Caroline Williams suggests that we look at two aspects: First of all, it is important to find out what it is that distracts one. Second, we can train how to stay focused because the brain’s plasticity allows for constant change and rewiring. For example, the Boston Attention and Learning Lab researchers developed a training programme addressing the ‘dorsal attention network’ in the brain, the network of neurons associated with maintaining focused. The training programme uses weak electromagnetic pulses to stimulate the ‘underperforming’ region in the brain, along with computer-based training.

Since most of us don’t have such advanced devices at home, what can we do in order to train our brain? Caroline Williams summarises research on methods that can help us stay focused: mindfulness meditation, yoga, and spending time in nature. What these methods also teach us is applying the right amount of effort. Because as Caroline Williams states “when it comes to attention, less is more. Staying on task isn’t about pouring all your energy into the job – it’s about allowing the brain to wander occasionally and gently nudging it back on course.” This means that trying too hard to stay focused is just as detrimental to actually stay focused as not trying hard enough.

Also in this task modern technology can help. For example, there is an app called ‘Daydreaming’ that was developed by researchers from the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris, France, and UCL in London, UK, and Centre Marc Bloch in Berlin, Germany. This app, according to its developers, allows for becoming more conscious of one’s own thoughts and for learning more about one’s specific behaviours and mental habits. Additionally, the researchers study the phenomenon of daydreaming.

So, it seems that by nature our brain is wired not to stay focused, particularly when the task is monotonous. But we can become more aware of what distracts us, for example by being mindful or by using apps like Daydreaming. And we can actively train our brain by regularly exercising mindfulness meditation or yoga and by spending time in nature.


Thomson, D. R., Besner, D., & Smilek, D. (2015). A Resource-Control Account of Sustained Attention. Evidence From Mind-Wandering and Vigilance Paradigms. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(1), 82-96.

About the Author

Katharina Lochner

Dr Katharina Lochner is the former research director for the cut-e Group which was acquired by Aon in 2017. Katharina is now a researcher and lecturer at the University of Applied Sciences Europe in Iserlohn, Germany. In her role at cut-e, she applied the research in organizational and work psychology to real-world assessment practice. She has a strong expertise in the construction and evaluation of online psychometric tools.

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