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Natural Health Glossary
Medical Terms, Therapies, Accreditation

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sustained attention
The ability to maintain consistent attention during a continuous and repetitive activity such as driving on an interstate freeway for long periods of time. The capacity to sustain attention at an efficient level noticeably deteriorates over time when performing tasks that involve discrimination and/or monitoring.

Sometimes referred to as "vigilance", particularly as in "vigilance decrement".

The length of time for sustained attention is thought to be different depending on a variety of factors, such as, shorter when we are younger or when we are lacking sleep, and longer as we grow up and get adequate sleep. As we continue to focus on the same task, our attention fades (the aforementioned "vigilance decrement").

Taking breaks to maintain focus

Interest in the concept of "vigilance decrement" developed during World War II, when it was observed that the longer an Air Force radar operator was on duty, the less accurate their reporting became. They needed to take breaks to "reset" their ability to focus on the task at hand.

The specific commonly held idea that the maximum time for sustained attention is 45 minutes appears to originate with a 1967 study on sonar detection and the point at which decision making started to be compromised. A much-cited 1979 study "Memory load and event rate control sensitivity decrements in sustained attention" reinforced te 45 minute measure by setting measured tasks between 30 and 45 minutes. Since then, other studies have validated the concept of taking breaks, but the interval of the breaks has altered - some suggesting as often as every 20 minutes.

"Taking a break" in this case refers to shifting your attention - whether to another task or get up and move away from the environment entirely. If the primary task is sedentary, it is often advised to incorporate a short exercise break to also combat the negative effects of sitting.

Sensory attention

Sustained attention of a sensory nature is influenced by a phenomenon known as "Troxler's fading" or "Troxler's effect" wherein objects that initially compete for attention or that are initially stimulating (e.g. visually, audibly, through touch) for extended periods of time actually fade from consciousness as we become used to their presence.

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