What Is… Attention in Cognitive Psychology

Descriptions of visual attention, attentional control, and selective attention

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is attention.

We are constantly bombarded with a steady stream of stimuli, both internal and external. Attention is the process by which we narrow our focus to certain pieces of information while excluding others.

Visual attention

Visual attention appears to consist of two different processes: a once-over of the entire visual field that is processed all at the same time, and then a second stage focused on a specific area, with processing that occurs serially (one bit at a time). It’s based on location, features (e.g. motion, colour), and objects.

Attentional control

Attentional control is the process of selecting what we do or do not want to pay attention to. This involves maintaining alertness/awareness, orientation to sensory stimuli, and executive control. An obvious example of low attentional control is ADHD, but it can also occur in autism, anxiety disorders, depression, PTSD, and schizophrenia.

Attention shifting

Attentional shifts involve reallocating mental resources in order to more efficiently process a particular stimulus. Task switching requires a corresponding attentional shift. These shifts can occur either voluntarily or automatically.

While we might think that we can and should multitask, we’re actually not very good at it. There’s only so much attention to go around, so we end up task switching rather than being able to attend to multiple tasks at the same time, and this requires more mental resources than if we focused on one task at a time.

Change blindness occurs when we’re attentive to something, lose attention briefly, and then return to it without noticing major changes that have happened during our brief lapse. One example of this is in an experiment in which someone is speaking to an actor, they’re distracted by another stimulus, and when they return their focus to the speaker, they don’t realize that the initial actor was replaced by another actor. The same phenomenon explains why most people don’t notice editing errors in movies. It may also be responsible for some traffic accidents.

Selective attention

Psychologist Donald Broadbent came up with a filter model of selective attention. Information enters sensory memory, and only relevant information is moved on to working memory. A problem with this model, though, was that it didn’t explain why we would quickly attend to hearing our name, even if it wasn’t from the source of stimuli that we were focusing on. A later model proposed an attenuation effect, so that stimuli not actively being attended to would be weakened but not filtered out entirely. Another model suggested thresholds for attention based on meaning.

The cocktail party effect is an example of selective attention for auditory stimuli. In a crowded room, we may not notice the chatter in the background until we hear our name being mentioned.

Have a look at the short video below.

Did your selective attention keep you from noticing the unusual stimulus?

My own experience

An interesting experience I had relevant to attention was when my last boyfriend was in intensive care following a medication overdose and subsequent aspiration of what the hospital gave him to try to counteract the overdose. He was on a ventilator, and unconscious. The nurses said that when I wasn’t there, he’d be resistant and even combative, but when I was there, he was much more cooperative. I rarely called him by his name, because we always used pet names with each other. We had been together for  1 1/2 years at that point, so I wasn’t sure if that was long enough for the pet name to have deeply sunk in or if it was my voice he was recognizing even when unconscious, but the nurses were very sure that he knew when I was there.

In my own experience, depression has definitely had a negative effect on my ability to sustain attention and to task switch efficiently. One of my meds is a stimulant (Dexedrine), which I take more for psychomotor retardation, but I’ve noticed only a moderate effect on my attention.

Is attention something that you struggle with?


The Psychology Corner: Insights into psychology and psychological tests

The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.

Ashley L. Peterson


Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.

20 thoughts on “What Is… Attention in Cognitive Psychology”

  1. Great read. Yes…attention is something that I struggle with. I am at work…only to work 1/2 day, to get things done (as I’ve been so busy or I would’ve taken the whole day off). The problem is that I went to the local Starbucks where I ran into a homeless man that I know. I sat down and started talking with him. A security officer came over and told him to leave. So…my attention is not on work..it’s on Tony (the homeless man). The security guard called the police on him. Instead of getting done what I came to do at work, I have looked up the law to see if he was violating anything and he was not. I went and saw him again and took a picture of the citation that he received and plan to call the officer that wrote it (as it says he was panhandling and he was not). I also plan to get in touch with the property management company to tell them what happened. Sure, they want the security guard to clear the area of people asking for money or bothering patrons..however, the law is that they can only clear the area if the person is impeding traffic (and Tony was not). UGH. My attention (as you can see) is on that and not work. Now I must practice mindfulness so that I can concentrate on here and now and work.

  2. Paying attention and multi-tasking was something I was always very strong at doing when I was working.
    Since medication came into the mix, not so much anymore.
    I mean I do pay attention. Attention to details, attention to conversations, etc… Paying attention was never really a problem to me.

  3. Omg yes! If I’m in a conversation and have something I want to say, if my attention is diverted like if the other person says something, I will forget what it is I wanted to say. I don’t know if that has to do with my attention or memory.

  4. I tend to be mostly highly focused, despite the PTSD. I think mine has a lot to do with longstanding discipline habits, and it covers for a lot of the lack of attention I may otherwise experience. If I am really activated I can either go hyper attentive and exhaust myself paying attention to EVERYTHING or I pay attention to nothing, but it’s usually hyper attentive.

      1. I only noticed it when it recently came up in contrast with someone who has great difficulty paying attention. Since I don’t work at an office I don’t often have a reason to make comparisons.

  5. Omg, I was only one pass off. But my eyes kept moving towards the people in the dark shirts, yet I did not see the gorilla. I went back to the beginning of the video to check because I didn’t believe it. Lol. My attention is shit (which you already know from the piece I wrote, lol) & i feel like I have to multitask. And I have to do it a certain way. Right now I have several windows open and I go through each one, read a paragraph, then go to the next tab.

    1. I missed the gorilla too. Yet it’s so obvious when you go back and watch it again when you already know it’s there. The mind works in crazy ways.

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