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Introduction to attention

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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 (e.g. the cocktail party problem, Cherry, 1953). Attention can also be split, as when a person drives a car and talks 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. Focalization, concentration, of consciousness are of its essence. It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state which in French is called distraction, and Zerstreutheit in German."[1]

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 defined by an epistemology called Positivism, which does not permit assumptions about processes that cannot be observed directly (e.g. cognitive processes, gravitational forces in physics). Thus, the cognitive processes that govern attention were not considered legimitate objects of scientific study.

1950s to present

In the 1950s, psychologists renewed their interest in attention when the dominant epistomology shifted from Positivism to Realism during what has come to be known as the cognitive revolution (Harré, 2002). The cognitive revolution admitted unobservable cognitive processes like attention as legitimate objects of scientific study.

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.

Main article: Dichotic listening studies in attention

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 developing the highly influential Feature integration theory (first published under this in a paper with G. Gelade in 1980). 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 electrical 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, psychologists began using PET and later fMRI to image the brain in attentive tasks. Because of the highly expensive equipment that was generally only available in hospitals, psychologists sought for cooperation with neurologists. Pioneers of brain imaging studies of selective attention are psychologist Michael I. Posner (then already renown for his seminal work on visual selective attention) and neurologist Marcus Raichle.[How to reference and link to summary or text] Their results soon sparked interest from the entire neuroscience community in these psychological studies, which had until then focused on monkey brains. With the development of these technological innovations neuroscientists became interested in this type of research that combines sophisticated experimental paradigms from cognitive psychology with these new brain imaging techniques. Although the older technique of EEG had long been to study the brain activity underlying selective attention by cognitive psychophysiologists, the ability of the newer techniques to actually measure precisely localized activity inside the brain generated renewed interest by a wider community of researchers. The results of these experiments have shown a broad agreement with the psychological, psychophysiological and monkey literature.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

Current research

Attention remains a major area of investigation within education, 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. A relatively new body of research is investigating the phenomenon of traumatic brain injuries and their effects on attention. TBIs are a fairly common occurrence in a significant segment of the population and often result in diminished attention.

Main article: Visual attention
Main article: Auditory attention

Overt and covert attention

What we look at may not be what we attend to. It is possible to look in one direction but actually notice changes in another direction. Overt attention is the act of directing our eyes or ears towards a stimulus source. Covert attention is the act of mentally focusing on a particular stimulus. Covert attention is thought to be a neural process that enhances the signal from a particular part of the sensory panorama.

Why should we have these two disjoint mechanisms for directing spatial attention? There are studies that show that the two mechanisms may not be so disjoint. Work by the group of Rizzolatti have suggested that, though humans and primates can look in one direction but attend in another, there is underlying neural circuitry that links shifts in covert attention to plans to shift gaze. So, if we attend to the right hand corner of our eye, we `want' to move our eyes in that direction, and have to actively suppress the eye movement that is linked to this shift in attention.

The current view is that visual covert attention is a mechanism for quickly scanning the field of view for interesting locations. This shift in covert attention is linked to eye movement circuitry that sets up a slower saccade to that location.

Clinical model of attention

Many times, clinical models differ from investigation models. This is the case of attention models. One of the most used models for the evaluation of attention in patients with very different neurologic pathologies is the model of Sohlberg and Mateer.[2] This hierarchic model is based in the recovering of attention processes of brain damage patients after coma. Five different kinds of activities of growing difficulty are described in the model; connecting with the activities that patients could do as their recovering process advanced.

  • Focused attention: This is the ability to respond discretely to specific visual, auditory or tactile stimuli.
  • Sustained attention: This refers to the ability to maintain a consistent behavioral response during continuous and repetitive activity.
  • Selective attention: : This level of attention refers to the capacity to maintain a behavioral or cognitive set in the face of distracting or competing stimuli. Therefore it incorporates the notion of "freedom from distractibility"
  • Alternating attention: it refers to the capacity for mental flexibility that allows individuals to shift their focus of attention and move between tasks having different cognitive requirements.
  • Divided attention: This is the highest level of attention and it refers to the ability to respond simultaneously to multiple tasks or multiple task demands.

This model has been shown to be very useful in evaluating attention in very different pathologies, correlates strongly with daily difficulties and is especially helpful in designing stimulation programmes such as APT (attention process training), a rehabilitation programme for neurologic patients of the same authors.

Overt and covert attention

Attention may be differentiated according to its status as 'overt' versus 'covert'. Overt attention is the act of directing sense organs towards a stimulus source. Covert attention is the act of mentally focusing on one of several possible sensory stimuli. Covert attention is thought to be a neural process that enhances the signal from a particular part of the sensory panorama.

There are studies that suggest the mechanisms of overt and covert attention may not be as separate as previously believed. Though humans and primates can look in one direction but attend in another, there may be an underlying neural circuitry that links shifts in covert attention to plans to shift gaze. For example, if individuals attend to the right hand corner field of view, movement of the eyes in that direction may have to be actively suppressed.

The current view is that visual covert attention is a mechanism for quickly scanning the field of view for interesting locations. This shift in covert attention is linked to eye movement circuitry that sets up a slower saccade to that location.

Executive attention

Inevitably situations arise where it is advantageous to have cognition independent of incoming sensory data or motor responses. There is a general consensus in psychology that there is an executive system based in the frontal cortex that controls our thoughts and actions to produce coherent behavior. This function is often referred to as executive function, executive attention, or cognitive control.

No exact definition has been agreed upon. However, typical descriptions involve maintaining behavioral goals, and using these goals to as a basis for choosing what aspects of the environment to attend to and which action to select.

Neural correlates of attention

Main article: Psychoneurology of attention

Most experiments show that one neural correlate of attention is enhanced firing. Say a neuron has a certain response to a stimulus when the animal is not attending to that stimulus. When the animal attends to the stimulus, even if the physical characteristic of the stimulus remains the same the neurons response is enhanced. A strict criterion, in this paradigm of testing attention, is that the physical stimulus available to the subject must be the same, and only the mental state is allowed to change. In this manner, any differences in neuronal firing may be attributed to a mental state (attention) rather than differences in the stimulus itself.

In this context it is instructive, though slightly tangential, to mention the Necker cube illusion. This is a great example of the mental preception of a stimulus changing, even though the stimulus itself is unchanged. A recent neural study in monkeys claims to have found a neural correlate to the Necker cube illusion.

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.

Humans and all animals respond more readily to novel objects and fast changes. That is why predators evolve to blend with their surroundings and move very little while stalking prey. Novel objects and fast changes are most likely to carry new information, and may be profitable to analyze in greater detail, than old objects, already inspected and slow changes that do not affect us immediately.

An interesting way to demonstrate how culture biases our attention is to fill a box with various everyday odds and ends from different walks of life and different cultures. For instance the box may include incense sticks as well as a microchip. People are then allowed to look into the box for a short period like one minute, and then asked, after an interval of a few minutes, to write down what objects they saw. They don't have to explicitly name the objects, but can also describe them. It may be found that the majority of objects that a person remembers are the ones that are unusual to them. Novel objects tend to attract attention.

Development and attention

Main article: Developmental aspects of attention

See also


Key texts – Books

  • Baddeley,A and Weiskrantz, L., (Eds.) Attention: Selection, awareness and control. A tribute to Donald Broadbent. Oxford: Clarendon Press University,(1993)
  • Neisser, U. Cognitive Psychology, New York: Appleton, 1967.
  • Norman, D. A. (1976) Memory and Attention, 2nd edn, Chichester: John Wiley.
  • Pashler, H.E. (1998) Attention, Philadelphia: Psychology Press. ISBN 0863778135
  • Pashler,H.E.E. (1999). The Psychology of Attention. Bradford Bks.ISBN 026266156X

Additional material – Books

  • Crary, Jonathan, Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle and Modern Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999). ISBN 0262032651
  • Davenport, Thomas H. & Beck, John C. (2001). The Attention Economy: Understanding the New Currency of Business. (A knowledge management and organizational perspective of the concept of attention)
  • Deutsch, J.A. and Deutsch, D. (1963) Attention: some theoretical considerations, Psychological Review 70: 80-90.
  • Kahneman, D. (1973). Attention and effort. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.ISBN 0130505188
  • Miller, G.A., Galanter, E. & Pribram, K.H., Plans and the structure of behavior, New York: Holt, 1960. ISBN 0937431001
  • Ornstein, Robert & Ehrlich, Paul, New World New Mind: Moving Toward Conscious Evolution (Doubleday, 1989). ISBN 0385239408
  • Styles, E A {1997)The Psychology of Attention. Psychology Press. ISBN 0863774652
  • Moray, N. (1969) Listening and Attention, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
  • Rabbitt,P.M.A. and Dormi,S. (1975)(eds) Attention and Performance, vol. 5, London: Academic Press.

Key texts – Papers

  • Kahneman, D., & Treisman, A., 1984. Changing views of attention and automaticity. In R. Parasuraman & R. Davies (Eds.) Varieties of Attention. New York: Academic Press, pp.29- 61.
  • Martin, M. and Jones, G.V. (1983) Distribution of attention in cognitive failure, Human Learning 2: 221-6.
  • Norman, D.A. and Shallice, T. (1980) Attention to Action: Willed and Automatic Control of Behaviour, CHIP Report 99, San Diego, Calif.: University of California.
  • Spelke, E., Hirst, W. and Neisser, U. (1976) Skills of divided attention, Cognition 4: 215-30.
  • Sullivan. L. (1976) Selective attention and secondary message analysis: a reconsideration of Broadbent's

filter model of selective attention, Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology 28: 167-78

  • Treisman, A., & Davies, A., 1973. Divided attention to ear and eye. In S. Kornblum (Ed.) Attention and Performance IV, Academic Press, 101-117.
  • Treisman, A.M. (1969)"Strategies and models of selective attention," Psychological Review, 76, 282-299.

Additional material – Papers

  • Allport, D.A. Antonis, B. and Reynolds, P. (1972) On the division of attention: a disproof of the single channel hypothesis, Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology 24: 225-35.
  • Averbach, E. & Coriell, A.S.,(1961) "Short term memory in vision." Bell System Technical Journal, 40, 309-328
  • Deutsch, J.A. & Deutsch, D., (1963) "Attention: some theoretical considerations," Psychological Review, 70, 80-90.
  • Eriksen, B.A. and Eriksen, C.W., (1974)"Effects of noise shapes upon the identification of a target shape in a non-search task," Perception & Psychophysics, 16, 143-149.
  • Lebedev, M.A., Messinger, A., Kralik, J.D., Wise, S.P. (2004) Representation of attended versus remembered locations in prefrontal cortex. PLoS Biology, 2: 1919-1935.Fulltext
  • Posner, M. I., Snyder, R.R., & Davidson, D.J. (1980). Attention and the detection of signals. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 109, 160-174.
  • Sperling, G. (1960) "The information in brief visual presentations," Psychological Monographs, 74 (Whole number 11).
  • Heinke, D. & Humphreys, G. W. (1999) Modelling emergent processes in attention. In D. Heinke, G. W. Humphreys & A. Olson (Eds.). Connectionist models in cognitive neuroscience: The 5(th) neural computing and psychology workshop. London: Springer-Verlag.
  • Govier, E. (1980) Attention. In: J. Radford and E. Govier (eds) A Textbook of Psychology, London: Sheldon.
  • Murray, D.J., Mastronardi, J. and Duncan, S. (1972) Selective attention to `physical' vs: 'verbal' aspects of colored words, Psychonomic Science 26: 305-7.
  • Shaffer, L.H. (1975) Multiple attention in continuous verbal tasks. In: P.M.A. Rabbitt and S. Dormi (eds) Attention and Performance, vol. 5, London: Academic Press.

External links

Aspects of attention
Absent-mindedness | Attentional control | Attention span | Attentional shift | Attention management | Attentional blink | Attentional bias | Attention economy | Attention and emotion | Attention optimization | Change blindness | Concentration |Dichotic listening | Directed attention fatigue | Distraction | Distractibility | Divided attention | Hyperfocus | Inattentional blindness | Mindfulness |Mind-wandering | Meditation | Salience | Selective attention | Selective inattention | Signal detection theory | Sustained attention | Vigilance | Visual search |
Developmental aspects of attention
centration | [[]] |
Neuroanatomy of attention
Attention versus memory in prefrontal cortex | Default mode network | Dorsal attention network | Medial geniculate nucleus | | Neural mechanisms | Ventral attention network | Intraparietal sulcus |
Neurochemistry of attention
Glutamatergic system  | [[]] |
Attention in clinical settings
ADHD | ADHD contoversy | ADD | AADD | Attention and aging | Attention restoration theory | Attention seeking | Attention training | Centering | Distractability | Hypervigilance | Hyperprosexia | Cognitive-shifting | Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy |
Attention in educational settings
Concentration |
Assessing attention
Benton | Continuous Performance Task | TOMM | Wechsler Memory Scale |
Treating attention problems
CBT | Psychotherapy |
Prominant workers in attention
Baddeley | Broadbent | [[]] | Treisman | Cave |

es:Atención fr:Attention he:קשב lt:Dėmesys nl:Aandachtpt:Atenção ru:Внимание zh:注意力

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