Learn more about Attention
- 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 (e.g. the cocktail party effect, Cherry, 1953). Attention can also be split, as when a person drives a car and talks on a cell phone at the same time. Sometimes our attention shifts to matters unrelated to the external environment, this is referred to as mind-wandering or "spontaneous thought".
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.
"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). Walter Benjamin described this experience as "reception in a state of distraction." 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, cognitive processes do not govern attention and attention is best viewed as a form of behavior that can be understood through purely objective experimental analysis.
 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.
Colin Cherry and Donald 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 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).
 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 (B van Swinderen, 2005) 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.
 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.
 Neural correlates 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 perception 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. A critical example: humans are attracted to sweet food, an adaptive trait for hunting and gathering, not so adaptive for modern nutrition (high sugar intake is a major cause of heart disease).
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; although only a few may have died in the accident, thousands may suffer and die due to smog-related illnesses.
Humans, like 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.
 See also
- Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder
- Attention versus memory in prefrontal cortex
- Binding problem
- Cognitive control
- Educational psychology
- Emotion and memory
- Visual Search
- Weapon focus
 External links
- Mind as a dynamical system - implications for autism A theory of mind as an interest system, in which interests compete for the limited mental resource attention. The article further describes attention-tunnels, referred to as monotropism, as a central feature of autism. The authors use methods from mathematical/ecological modelling to run experiments with different strategies of distributing attention.
- Psychology of Classroom Management WikEd Research on Attention
- What is attention?
 Further reading
- Averbach, E. & Coriell, A.S.,(1961) "Short term memory in vision." Bell System Technical Journal, 40, 309-328
- 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.
- Crary, Jonathan, Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle and Modern Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999). ISBN 0-262-03265-1
- 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. & 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.
- Kahneman, D. (1973). Attention and effort. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
- 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.
- Miller, G.A., Galanter, E. & Pribram, K.H., Plans and the structure of behavior, New York: Holt, 1960.
- 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.
- Ornstein, Robert & Ehrlich, Paul, New World New Mind: Moving Toward Conscious Evolution (Doubleday, 1989). ISBN 0-385-23940-8
- Pashler, Harold E. (1998) Attention, Philadelphia: Psychology Press. ISBN 0-86377-813-5
- Posner, M. I., Snyder, R.R., & Davidson, D.J. (1980). Attention and the detection of signals. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 109, 160-174.
- 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.