We’re worried about a report we haven’t completed and we eat from the bag of snacks we ate next to the computer, so we don’t know exactly what or when we did. We left home and got down to business, and although we know we got there, we don’t know how we got there.
We’re not talking about some kind of amnesia because we really know what we were doing. We just weren’t careful what we were doing: we experimented a mental absence in the first case, and a temporary deviation in the second. They are similar phenomena, but they should not be confused. Let’s see what they consist of.
The definition and delineation of the concept of attention is relatively complex, given its close connection with other mental abilities such as consciousness and memory. In general we mean by attention to this capacity which allows us to be able to select, orient ourselves, concentrate and scramble our cognitive resources in such a way that they allow us to obtain information about the environment and about our own behavior, so that we can adapt to the environment.
It also allows us filter the stimuli that we perceive and focus on the things that matter most, ignoring distractions and not devoting mental resources to unnecessary details. Our attention span varies depending on different circumstances such as level of activation, motivation, emotion and cognition, as well as other environmental and even biological variables.
In some cases, our attention span can be altered, exhibiting phenomena such as mental absence and temporary deviation.
Mental absence as an alteration of attention
This is called mental absence, the phenomenon by which our attention span becomes fully focused and focused on our own thoughts or on a particular stimulus or task, so that stimuli outside of they are neglected. like that, no we handle media information as we normally would although its ability remains intact, acting automatically.
This is what happens when we are engrossed in finding and thinking about something, even though we can do other things. In fact, it may be related to the concept of ‘state of flux’ used by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to define the mental state we have entered when performing tasks that we are passionate about and have just the right degree of. difficulty.
Mental absence it is difficult for us to respond adaptively to external stimulation. However, this absence is broken if the subject is made to disconnect from his thoughts or from the element in which he is fully concentrated by increasing the external stimulation, as if someone calls us or if a noise appears or an unexpected light. .
The temporary lagoon
A phenomenon which in principle may seem similar to the above and which is also an impairment of attention is temporary lag. However, these are different phenomena.
The temporary lagoon it relies heavily on the automation of tasks that we perform: it is considered to be a temporary shift from this phenomenon that occurs when we perform some type of activity that is more or less automated (especially if it is repetitive, easy or unmotivating and arouses emotion) without that remarkable stimuli appear during its realization which mobilize our attention and can be used to record time.
On the other hand, the temporary deviation ends when we need to reprocess information actively. The absence of something that marks us out of time makes us later unable to remember what exactly happened in the time that elapsed. For example, if we work in a factory or go home, we do everything so automatically that at some point we don’t know what we have done.
Differences between temporary deviation and mental absence
The two concepts may sound very similar, but in reality these are different mental disorders. The main similarity is that in both cases the subject loses information due to changes in the type of attention, specifically deriving from this understanding as the ability to concentrate.
But the differences between mental absence and temporary deviation are also noticeable. As for mental absence, it occurs when we pay maximum attention to something and lose information other than that, but if we are asked if we know what we are paying attention to. He is more aware of what we have done.
In the temporary lagoon you have a feeling of memory loss (If it must be remembered that this is not amnesia but a phenomenon related to care), not being able to directly determine what happened over a period of time (the deviation – even) It should not be a cause of dysfunctions of brain structures involved in memory, such as the hippocampus.
Thus, the differences between mental absence and temporary deviation are:
1. Whether or not to focus on the stimulus
In mental absence, alteration occurs because we direct all of our attention to one very specific type of information, neglecting the rest. In the interim, there is no such focus.
2. The degree of automation
Temporary deviation occurs when we perform simple and repetitive actions or do not force us to focus on them. For example, walking to our usual place of work.
The opposite happens in case of mental absence, based on how we focus on an interesting and complex task.
3. The feeling of memory loss
In the mental absence, he does not have the feeling of not remembering the relevant aspects, but it usually happens in the temporary interval.
Context of appearance: is it pathological?
Although they can be considered and classified as abnormalities or alterations in attention, or a mental absence temporary deficiencies are not in themselves a pathological phenomenon either.
However, they can appear more often in different disorders or conditions, especially in cases of mental absence. It appears in disorders such as epilepsy, certain food poisoning or psychoactive substances or then stroke or head trauma in which neural damage occurs in the nuclei that govern attention.
Some mental disorders in which they can occur frequently are ADHD, autism, or other disorders such as depression or OCD. Also in disorders such as epilepsy and dementia and in situations such as sleep deprivation, altered consciousness or intense hunger.
- Belloch, A .; Sandín, B. and Ramos, F. (2008), Manual of Psychopathology, Volume I, Madrid, McGraw-Hill.