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5.1.1: What is Attention?

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    Before we begin exploring attention in its various forms, take a moment to consider how you think about the concept. How would you define attention, or how do you use the term? We certainly use the word very frequently in our everyday language: “ATTENTION! USE ONLY AS DIRECTED!” warns the label on the medicine bottle, meaning be alert to possible danger. “Pay attention!” pleads the weary seventh-grade teacher, not warning about danger (with possible exceptions, depending on the teacher) but urging the students to focus on the task at hand. We may refer to a child who is easily distracted as having an attention disorder, although we also are told that Americans have an attention span of about 8 seconds, down from 12 seconds in 2000, suggesting that we all have trouble sustaining concentration for any amount of time (from How that number was determined is not clear from the Web site, nor is it clear how attention span in the goldfish—9 seconds!—was measured, but the fact that our average span reportedly is less than that of a goldfish is intriguing, to say the least.

    William James wrote extensively about attention in the late 1800s. An often quoted passage (James, 1890/1983) beautifully captures how intuitively obvious the concept of attention is, while it remains very difficult to define in measurable, concrete terms:

    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. (pp. 381–382)

    Figure 2. Are you reading these words right here right now? If so, it’s only because you directed your attention toward them. [Image: geralt]

    Notice that this description touches on the conscious nature of attention, as well as the notion that what is in consciousness is often controlled voluntarily but can also be determined by events that capture our attention. Implied in this description is the idea that we seem to have a limited capacity for information processing, and that we can only attend to or be consciously aware of a small amount of information at any given time.

    Many aspects of attention have been studied in the field of psychology. In some respects, we define different types of attention by the nature of the task used to study it. For example, a crucial issue in World War II was how long an individual could remain highly alert and accurate while watching a radar screen for enemy planes, and this problem led psychologists to study how attention works under such conditions. When watching for a rare event, it is easy to allow concentration to lag. (This a continues to be a challenge today for TSA agents, charged with looking at images of the contents of your carry-on items in search of knives, guns, or shampoo bottles larger than 3 oz.) Attention in the context of this type of search task refers to the level of sustained attention or vigilance one can maintain. In contrast, divided attention tasks allow us to determine how well individuals can attend to many sources of information at once. Spatial attention refers specifically to how we focus on one part of our environment and how we move attention to other locations in the environment. These are all examples of different aspects of attention, but an implied element of most of these ideas is the concept of selective attention; some information is attended to while other information is intentionally blocked out. This module will focus on important issues in selective and divided attention, addressing these questions:

    • Can we pay attention to several sources of information at once, or do we have a limited capacity for information?
    • How do we select what to pay attention to?
    • What happens to information that we try to ignore?
    • Can we learn to divide attention between multiple tasks?

    This page titled 5.1.1: What is Attention? is shared under a CC BY license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Mehgan Andrade and Neil Walker.