What Is Visual Attention?

You may be reading a tweet and catch a typo that you want to correct, walk past a pond and see a goldfish from under the water, or do a double-take when something catches your eye from your peripheral vision. These actions are driven by visual attention, our ability to observe and take in visual information from the world around us. We use visual attention every day to detect abnormalities in our visual field or find things we need. In this blog post, we discuss what visual attention is.

What is visual attention?

Visual attention refers to the cognitive processes we use to detect abnormalities or find things in our visual environment. Visual attention allows us to detect threats, such as a car coming if we are trying to cross a street, in order for us to respond quickly by getting out of the way. We may also use visual attention to find things, such as looking for a car in a busy parking lot or looking for a specific brand of salad dressing at the grocery store. Visual attention utilizes our executive functioning, working memory, and visual recognition skills to distinguish between different objects.

Why may someone have difficulty with visual attention?

People may have difficulty with visual attention for a variety of reasons. For one, we may have trouble with our visual attention skills on a daily basis when we are fatigued, overworked, or when we are sick as our body is not working at its full potential. Sometimes, people may have a medical condition which causes them to experience difficulty in focusing and may cause them visual problems. For example, experiencing a brain injury or stroke disrupts neural networks involved in visual processing, working memory, and executive functioning which may cause someone to have difficulty detecting differences in visual stimuli. Psychological disorders, such as schizophrenia, may cause someone to see, feel, and hear things that are not really there and become distracted, thus disabling them from paying attention to their current environment. Lastly, visual impairments may disrupt visual attention, as people may have difficulty processing colors, objects at a distance, or being able to distinguish different shapes in their visual field. Visual attention can be impacted by a variety of factors, each with their own course of remediation. 

What cognitive activities can someone perform to improve visual attention?

Outside of correcting visual impairments, people may perform cognitive exercises to help them learn strategies that may improve their visual attention abilities. For example, people may perform exercises where they must find a certain object or figure in a picture like in “Where’s Waldo ?”, or detect similarities and differences between two or more objects. Exercises like these challenge a person to separate objects or figures from each other and the background in order to find desirable or undesirable objects or differences needed to solve a problem. Individuals may use worksheets or digital cognitive therapy tools to perform these exercises and practice cognitive strategies to improve visual attention abilities. 


Visual attention allows us to discern different objects and detect abnormalities in our environment. We use visual attention to locate our car in a busy parking lot, detect whether a car is coming in our peripheral vision as we cross a street, or find a specific item in a store. People may have difficulty with visual attention for reasons such as fatigue, being overworked, or from a medical condition such as having a stroke or psychological disorder. Visual problems may also hinder visual attention, as people may not be able to see color, objects in the distance, or distinguish specific shapes in their visual field. To work on the cognitive components of visual attention, people may perform cognitive exercises using worksheets or on a digital cognitive therapy tool. Without visual attention, we would not be able to survive. Working on executive functioning, working memory, and visual processing skills may help someone learn strategies to help them better detect differences or abnormalities in visual stimuli. 

Christine Campbell

Christine is HappyNeuron Pro’s Marketing Specialist. People with intellectual disabilities have a special place in her heart. Growing up with a sibling with an autism diagnosis and intellectual disability influenced the way she views life. She is passionate about educating people about health and sharing cognitive tips.

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