Attention and Concentration: Common Brain Injury Deficits

Problems with attention and concentration stem from the problems with information processing that we blogged about yesterday. There are multiple facets of attention that we will describe in this blog.

Attention and Concentration

Previously enjoyable tasks like reading can create problems for brain injury survivors after their injury. This usually has to do with attention and concentration problems. (Flickr / Creative Commons / Sam Greenhalgh)

The first aspect to attention is focused attention, which can become a problem in brain injury survivors. Focused attention is the capability to focus on one part of the environment and ignore distractions. This is used often while reading, where we turn off the distractions and focus on what’s important the meaning of the words. An enjoyable task, such as reading, can become very difficult after a brain injury.

Focused attention has to do with the “cocktail party effect” where we can move from group to group and only tune in the conversation we are in at that time.

For Nancy, she had problems with reading after her brain injury. Before her severe brain injury, she enjoyed reading very much. Something switched after the traumatic brain injury that made her unable to enjoy reading anymore.

For Michael, who was injured in a car accident, he has problems concentrating on one conversation when there is background noise going on around him. It takes him longer to process requests from his kids, for example. In a distraction-free setting, it is much easier for him to concentrate, but in a noisy setting, it is much more difficult. This also manifest itself in school when he was taking tests. If someone would cough or drop a pencil, the background noise would be very distracting. For more on his story, click here.

For Kelly, who was injured by the bridle of a horse, she has trouble tuning out distractions as well, specifically in a restaurant setting. She will ask not to be seated by small children because she cannot handle the noise. Like Michael, she has trouble with the cocktail party effect, tuning out irrelevant information and tuning into the relevant conversation. For more on Kelly’s story, click here.

The second aspect to attention we have found is called divided attention. Some people may refer to this as multi-tasking, or the ability to carry out two activities at the same time. This can apply to an academic setting, where the student may have trouble listening to the lecture and taking notes at the same time, while he or she had no trouble with this pre-injury. This could be accommodated by the school providing a notetaker for the student.

The third aspect to attention we have found is concentration span, or the capability to sustain attention. This aspect deals with the amount of time one can maintain attention on a certain task. When information processing rate is reduced, this aspect is also reduced. A student who could normally easily handle a one hour lecture might find that he or she will start to drift off after a few minutes. Sometimes this also deals with remaining vigilant. For example, when driving a car, even over a familiar route, the driver needs to remain vigilant in case a child chases a ball across the road. Driving is a task that requires vigilance for the unexpected.


Gordon Johnson

Attorney Gordon Johnson is one of the nations leading brain injury advocates. He is Past-Chair of the TBILG, a national group of more than 150 brain injury advocates. He has spoken at numerous brain injury seminars and is the author of some of the most read brain injury web pages on the internet.

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