From Academic Kids

This article discusses the psychological concept of Attention. For the military concept, see Military courtesy.
For the buddhist concept of Attention, see Mindfulness.


Attention is the cognitive process of selectively concentrating on one thing while ignoring other things. Examples include listening carefully to what someone is saying while ignoring other conversations in the room. Attention can also be split, as when a person can drive a car, put on makeup, and talk on a cell phone at the same time.

Attention is one of the most intensely studied topics within psychology and cognitive neuroscience. Of the many cognitive processes associated with the human mind (decision-making, memory, emotion, etc), attention is considered the most concrete because it is tied so closely to perception. As such, it is a gateway to the rest of cognition.

The most famous definition of attention was provided by one of the first major psychologists, William James:

"Everyone knows what attention is. It is the taking possession by the mind in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought...It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others." (Principles of Psychology, 1890)


History of the study of attention

1850s to 1920s

In James' time, the only method available to study attention was introspection. Very little progress was made in quantifying the study of attention, though it was considered a major field of intellectual inquiry by such diverse authors as Sigmund Freud, Walter Benjamin, and Max Nordau. For example, one major debate in this period was whether it was possible to attend to two things at once (split attention). Some thinkers felt that they were unable to do so, and other thinkers felt that they could. Without experiments, it was impossible to settle the debate.

1920s to 1950s

From the 1920s to the 1950s, the field of attention was relatively inactive. The dominant psychological paradigm at the time was Behaviorism. This view was strongly opposed to anything cognitive, partially as a reaction to the endless debates of the introspectivists. Thus there were still no tools for quantitative measurements.

1950s to present

In the 1950s, the cognitive revolution began, and psychologists renewed their interest in attention. Cherry and Broadbent, among others, performed experiments on dichotic listening. In a typical experiment, subjects would listen to two streams of words in different ears of a set of headphones, and selectively attend to one stream. After the task, the experimenter would ask the subjects questions about the content of the unattended stream.

During this period, the major debate was between early-selection models and late-selection models. In the early selection models, attention shuts down processing in the unattended ear before the mind can analyze its semantic content. In the late selection models, the content in both ears is analyzed semantically, but the words in the unattended ear cannot access consciousness. This debate has still not been resolved.

In the 1960s, Anne Treisman began developping the highly influential Feature integration theory (first published under this name in 1980 when it became famous in a paper with G. Gelade). According to this model, attention is responsible for binding different features into consciously experienced wholes. Although this model has received much criticism, it is still widely accepted or held up with modifications as in Jeremy Wolfe's visual search paradigm.

In the 1960s, Robert Wurtz at the NIH began recording eletrical signals from the brains of macaque monkeys who were trained to perform attentional tasks. These experiments showed for the first time that there was a direct neural correlate of a mental process (namely, enhanced firing in the superior colliculus).

In the 1990s, neuroscientists began using fMRI to image the brain in attentive tasks. The results of these experiments have shown a broad agreement with the psychophysical and monkey literature.

Current research

Attention remains a major area of investigation within psychology and neuroscience. Many of the major debates of James' time remain unresolved. For example, although most scientists accept that attention can be split, strong proof has remained elusive. And there is still no widely-accepted definition of attention more concrete than that given in the James quote above. This lack of progress has led many observers to speculate that attention refers to many separate processes without a common mechanism.

Areas of active investigation involve determining the source of the signals that generate attention, the effects of these signals on the tuning properties of sensory neurons, and the relationship between attention and other cognitive processes like working memory. Some speculative research has even shown that flies may be able to attend (using a brain the size of a poppy seed) in much the same way neurologically as humans do.

Human attention

What members of a species will pay attention to is a function of their evolutionary and cultural history. In the case of humans there are problems presented by ecosystem changes resulting from human mobility and cultural artifacts. Humans no longer live in the ecosystem they evolved in, but in an ecosystem of their own creation. To take a mundane example, humans are attracted to sweet food, an adaptive trait for hunting and gathering, not so adaptive for modern nutrition.

A more substantial problem is presented by the human propensity to focus on emergency situations to the exclusion of background phenomena which may be more significant. This can be seen in what is considered news where a spectacular auto accident easily outweighs a report on particulate pollution by diesel engines although only a few may have died in the accident while thousands may suffer and die due to diesel pollution.

External links

Further reading

  • Robert Ornstein and Paul Ehrlich, New World New Mind: Moving Toward Conscious Evolution (Doubleday, 1989). ISBN 0385239408
  • Jonathan Crary, Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle and Modern Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999). ISBN 0262032651
  • Raz A. 2004. Anatomy of attentional networks. The Anatomical Record Part B: The New Anatomist;281(1):21-36 PMID 15558781
  • Pashler, Harold E. (1998) Attention, Philadelphia: Psychology Press. ISBN 0863778135pl:Uwaga



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