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Attention is the cognitive process of selectively concentrating on one aspect of the environment while ignoring other things. Attention has also been referred to as the allocation of processing resources.[1]

Examples include listening carefully to what someone is saying while ignoring other conversations in a room (the cocktail party effect) or listening to a cell phone conversation while driving a car.[2] Attention is one of the most intensely studied topics within psychology and cognitive neuroscience.

William James, in his textbook Principles of Psychology, remarked:

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.[3]


History of the study of attention

Kiera Lubbeke, brn 1991 wants attention so much she wrote her name on the definition of attention on wikipedia.

1950s to present

In the 1950s, research psychologists renewed their interest in attention when the dominant epistemology shifted from positivism (i.e., behaviorism) to realism during what has come to be known as the "cognitive revolution".[4] The cognitive revolution admitted unobservable cognitive processes like attention as legitimate objects of scientific study.

Colin Cherry and Donald Broadbent, among others, performed experiments on dichotic listening. In a typical experiment, subjects would use a set of headphones to listen to two streams of words in different ears and selectively attend to one stream. After the task, the experimenter would question the subjects about the content of the unattended stream.[citation needed]

During this period, the major debate was between early-selection models and late-selection models. In the early selection models (first proposed by Donald Broadbent and Anne Treisman), attention shuts down or attenuates processing in the unattended ear before the mind can analyze its semantic content. In the late selection models (first proposed by J. Anthony Deutsch and Diana Deutsch), the content in both ears is analyzed semantically, but the words in the unattended ear cannot access consciousness.[5] This debate has still not been resolved.

Anne Treisman developed the highly influential feature integration theory[6]. According to this model, attention binds different features of an object (e.g., color and shape) 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 Guided Search Theory.[7]

In the 1960s, Robert Wurtz at the National Institutes of Health began recording electrical signals from the brains of macaques 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).[citation needed]

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.[citation needed] 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 used 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 the experiments performed on monkeys.[citation needed]

Current research

Attention span.jpg

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.

Clinical model of attention

Attention is best described as the sustained focus of cognitive resources on information while filtering or ignoring extraneous information. Attention is a very basic function that often is a precursor to all other neurological/cognitive functions. As is frequently the case, clinical models of attention differ from investigation 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.[8] 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' [9]. 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.[10]

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

Neural correlates of attention

Most experiments show that one neural correlate of attention is enhanced firing. If a neuron has a certain response to a stimulus when the animal is not attending to the stimulus, then when the animal does attend to the stimulus, the neuron's response will be enhanced even if the physical characteristics of the stimulus remain the same.

In a recent review, Knudsen[11] describes a more general model which identifies four core processes of attention, with working memory at the center:

  • Working memory temporarily stores information for detailed analysis.
  • Competitive selection is the process that determines which information gains access to working memory.
  • Through top-down sensitivity control, higher cognitive processes can regulate signal intensity in information channels that compete for access to working memory, and thus give them an advantage in the process of competitive selection. Through top-down sensitivity control, the momentary content of working memory can influence the selection of new information, and thus mediate voluntary control of attention in a recurrent loop (endogenous attention[12]).
  • Bottom-up saliency filters automatically enhance the response to infrequent stimuli, or stimuli of instinctive or learned biological relevance (exogenous attention[12]).

Neurally, at different hierarchical levels spatial maps can enhance or inhibit activity in sensory areas, and induce orienting behaviors like eye movement.

  • At the top of the hierarchy, the frontal eye fields (FEF) on the dorsolateral frontal cortex contain a retinocentric spatial map. Microstimulation in the FEF induces monkeys to make a saccade to the relevant location. Stimulation at levels too low to induce a saccade will nonetheless enhance cortical responses to stimuli located in the relevant area.
  • At the next lower level, a variety of spatial maps are found in the parietal cortex. In particular, the lateral intraparietal area (LIP) contains a saliency map and is interconnected both with the FEF and with sensory areas.
  • Certain automatic responses that influence attention, like orienting to a highly salient stimulus, are mediated subcortically by the superior colliculi.
  • At the neural network level, it is thought that processes like lateral inhibition mediate the process of competitive selection.

In many cases attention produces changes in the EEG. Many animals, including humans, produce gamma waves (40-60 Hz) when focusing attention on a particular object or activity.[13]

Attention and boredom

Some research has suggested that the inability to pay attention often leads to boredom, rather than boredom leading to inattention. One study found that the same reading material was judged interesting or dull depending on the level of distraction found in the environment.[14]

Attention and autism (in relation to social attention)

Some studies have found some correlation between attention and autism, in particular related to social perception.[15] For instance experiments have shown that "participants with autism exhibited reduced face gaze, linking to a lack of interest in socially relevant information".[16]

See also


  1. ^ Anderson, John R. (2004). Cognitive psychology and its implications (6th ed.). Worth Publishers. pp. 519. ISBN 9780716701101. 
  2. ^ Strayer, DL; Drews FA & Johnston WA (2003). "Cell phone induced failures of visual attention during simulated driving". Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied 9: 23–32. doi:10.1037/1076-898X.9.1.23. PMID 12710835. 
  3. ^ James, W. (1890). The Principles of Psychology. New York: Henry Holt, Vol. 1, pp. 403-404.
  4. ^ Harré, Rom. Cognitive science: A philosophical introduction. London: SAGE Publications, 2002. ISBN 0761947469.
  5. ^ Deutsch, J.A. & Deutsch, D., (1963) Attention: some theoretical considerations. Psychological Review, 70, 80-90.
  6. ^ Treisman, A., & Gelade, G. (1980). A feature-integration theory of attention. Cognitive Psychology, 12, 97-136.
  7. ^ Wolfe, J. M. (1994). "Guided search 2.0: a revised model of visual search." Psychonomic Bulletin Review 1: 202-238.
  8. ^ McKay Moore Sohlberg, Catherine A. Mateer (1989). Introduction to cognitive rehabilitation: theory and practice. New York: Guilford Press. ISBN 0-89862-738-9. 
  9. ^ Wright, R.D. & Ward, L.M. (2008). Orienting of Attention. Oxford University Press
  10. ^ Pinel, J. P. (2008). Biopsychology (7th ed.). Boston: Pearson. (p. 357)
  11. ^ Knudsen, Eric I (2007). "Fundamental Components of Attention". Annual Review of Neuroscience 30 (1): 57–78. doi:10.1146/annurev.neuro.30.051606.094256. PMID 17417935. 
  12. ^ a b Pattyn, N., Neyt, X., Henderickx, D., & Soetens, E. (2008). Psychophysiological Investigation of Vigilance Decrement: Boredom or Cognitive Fatigue? Physiology & Behavior, 93, 369-378.
  13. ^ Kaiser J, Lutzenberger W (2003). "Induced gamma-band activity and human brain function". Neuroscientist 9: 475–84. doi:10.1177/1073858403259137. PMID 14678580. 
  14. ^ Damrad-Frye, R; Laird JD (1989). "The experience of boredom: the role of the self-perception of attention". J Personality Social Psych 57: 315–20. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.57.2.315. 
  15. ^ Goldenring Fine, Jodene; emrud-Clikeman, Margaret; Butcher, Brianne; Walkowiak, Jennifer (2008). "Brief Report: Attention Effect on a Measure of Social Perception". Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 38. doi:10.1007/s10803-008-0570-x. 
  16. ^ Riby, Deborah M.; Hancock, Peter J. B. (2009). "Do Faces Capture the Attention of Individuals with Williams Syndrome or Autism? Evidence from Tracking Eye Movements". Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 39 (3). doi:10.1007/s10803-008-0641-z. 

Further reading

  • Bryden, M.P., (1971) "Attentional strategies and short-term memory in dichotic listening." Cognitive Psychology, 2, 99-116.
  • Cherry, E.C., (1953) "Some experiments on the recognition of speech, with one and with two ears," Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 25, 975-979.
  • 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 letters on the identification of a target letter in a non-search task," Perception & Psychophysics, 16, 143-149.
  • Kahneman, D. (1973). Attention and effort. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
  • Kanwisher, N. & Wojciulik, E. (November 2000). Visual Attention: Insights from Brain Imaging. Nature Reviews: Neuroscience, Volume 1, 91-98.
  • 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.
  • Moray, N., (1959) "Attention in dichotic listening: affective cues and the influence of instructions," Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 27, 56-60.
  • Neisser, U. Cognitive Psychology, New York: Appleton, 1967.
  • Pashler, H. E. (Ed.) (1998). Attention, East Sussex, UK: Psychology Press ISBN 0-86377-813-5
  • Posner, M. I., Snyder, C.R.R., & Davidson, D.J. (1980). Attention and the detection of signals. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 109, 160-174.
  • Posner, M.I., Raichle, M. (1994). Images of Mind. Scientific American Library.
  • Raz A. 2004. Anatomy of attentional networks. The Anatomical Record Part B: The New Anatomist;281(1):21-36 PMID 15558781
  • Sperling, G. (1960) "The information in brief visual presentations," Psychological Monographs, 74 (Whole number 11).
  • van Swinderen, B. (2005) "The remote roots of consciousness in fruit-fly selective attention?" BioEssays, 27, 321-330.
  • Treisman, A.M. (1969) "Strategies and models of selective attention," Psychological Review, 76, 282-299.
  • Wright, R.D., & Ward, L.M. (2008). Orienting of Attention. Oxford University Press.

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

ATTENTION (from Lat. ad-tendo, await, expect; the condition of being "stretched" or "tense"), in psychology, the concentration of consciousness upon a definite object or objects. The result is brought about, not by effecting any change in the perceptions themselves, but simply by isolating them from other objects. Since all consciousness involves this isolation, attention may be defined generally as the necessary condition of consciousness. Such a definition, however, throws no light upon the nature of the psychological process, which is partly explained by the general law that the greater the number of objects on which attention is concentrated the less will each receive ("pluribus intentus, minor est ad singula sensus"), and conversely. There are also special circumstances which determine the amount of attention, e.g. influences not subject to the will, such as the vividness of the impression (e.g. in the case of a shock), strong change in pleasurable or painful sensations. Secondly, an exercise of volition is employed in fixing the mind upon a definite object. This is a purely voluntary act, which can be strengthened by habit and is variable in different individuals; to it the name "attention" is sometimes restricted. The distinction is expressed by the words "reflex" or "passive," and "volitional" or "active." It is important to notice that in every case of attention to an object, there must be in consciousness an implicit apprehension of surrounding objects from which the particular object is isolated. These objects are known as the "psychic fringe," and are essential to the systematic unity of the attentionprocess. Attempts have been made to examine the attentionprocess from the physiological standpoint by investigating the muscular and neural changes which accompany it, and even to assign to it a specific local centre. It has, for example, been remarked that uniformity of environment, resulting in practically automatic activity, produces mental equilibrium and the comparative disappearance of attention-processes; whereas the necessity of adapting activity to abnormal conditions produces a comparatively high degree of attention. In other words, attention is absent where there is uniformity of activity in accordance with uniform, or uniformly changing, environment. In spite of the progress made in this branch of study, it has to be remembered that all psycho-physical experiments are to some extent vitiated by the fact that the phenomena can scarcely remain normal under inspection.

See G. F. Stout, Analytic Psychology (London, 1896), especially part ii. chap. 2; also Psychology, Brain, &c.

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Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary

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Most common English words: single « foot « beauty « #618: attention » standing » books » knows


< Middle English attencioun < Latin attentio < attendere, pp. attentus (to attend, give heed to); see attend.





attention (plural attentions)

  1. (uncountable) Mental focus.
    Please direct your attention to the following words.
  2. (countable, often plural) An action or remark expressing concern for or interest in someone or something, especially romantic interest.
    • 1818, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus, ch. 3,
      She attended her sickbed; her watchful attentions triumphed over the malignity of the distemper.
    • 1910, Stephen Leacock, "How to Avoid Getting Married," in Literary Lapses,
      For some time past I have been the recipient of very marked attentions from a young lady.
  3. (uncountable, military) A state of alertness in the standing position.
    The company will now come to attention.

Derived terms

Related terms


The translations below need to be checked and inserted above into the appropriate translation tables, removing any numbers. Numbers do not necessarily match those in definitions. See instructions at Help:How to check translations.



  1. (military) Used as a command to bring soldiers to the attention position.

External links

  • attention in Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, G. & C. Merriam, 1913
  • attention in The Century Dictionary, The Century Co., New York, 1911




attention f. (plural attentions)

  1. attention



  1. warning


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