What Is… Attention

diagram showing selective attention filters

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. This is necessary because our capacity to process information is limited.

Selective attention

Selective attention refers to the ability to focus on certain environmental stimuli while ignoring other distractions.

The cocktail party effect is an example of selective attention to auditory input. If you’re chatting with a small group of other people, you’re probably focused on what others in that small group are saying and mostly ignoring all of the other chatter in the background. However, if someone in one of those background conversations you’re ignoring says your name, that’s likely to make it through your selective filter.

In studies of selective attention in which people receive a different auditory stream in each ear and are asked to repeat back what they’re hearing in the left ear, for example, they notice very little about what they’re hearing in their right ear. They’ll probably notice whether it’s a male or female voice, but they probably wouldn’t notice if that voice switched to a different language partway through.

Have a look at this short video:

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

Selective attention models

Diagram showing Broadbent's filter model of attention: how sensory input is filtered into working memory
Kyle.Farr, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Psychologist Donald Broadbent proposed a filter model that involved filtering sensory input based on physical characteristics. Information that made it through that filter would undergo higher-level processing before making it into working memory. The move to higher-level processing serves as a bottleneck that limits how much can pass through.

Because filtered-out information never makes it into working memory, there’s no way for you to remember that information, even though you were exposed to it. This is a major part of the frequency illusion, which involves noticing something and then suddenly seeing it everywhere. It’s not that you weren’t seeing it before; it just wasn’t making it through the filter into your memory, so it’s just not possible to remember it.

diagram of Treisman attenuation model of attention with an attenuating filter and hierarchy of analyzers
Kyle.Farr, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

According to Anne Treisman’s attenuation model, the initial filter doesn’t entirely block out stimuli. Instead, it weakens (attenuates) them, but that information is still subject to further processing through a hierarchy of analyzers. Those analyzers are syllables, words, grammar, and semantics. This model accounts for our ability to notice someone saying our name even if we hadn’t been paying attention to what they were saying before that.

Divided attention and task-switching

As much as people might like to think they can multitask, divided attention is not something our brains are good at. Trying to multitask while performing complex tasks decreases our performance. Task-switching, i.e. shifting attention between different tasks, is also cognitively demanding.

It actually takes more mental energy to shift attention within a sensory modality than to shift from one sense to another. That means that shifting focus from listening to one conversation over to listening to another conversation takes more cognitive effort than shifting attention from the auditory input of that conversation to a visual source of input.

Things we don’t notice

Change blindness refers to our tendency not to notice changes in something if we shift attention away and then back to it. We may not even notice we’re talking to a different person! In one study, Experimenter A stopped someone to ask them for directions, then Experimenters B and C walked between Experimenter A and the subject. While doing so, Experimenters A and B switched places. Only half of the subjects noticed this, even when they were told that they were no longer talking to Experimenter A.

Repetition blindness is the tendency not to notice repeated stimuli that are presented in quick succession. If we see an object a second time, our brains may just stick with the first object and not process the second. I often repeat words like this this (or even like this like this) when I pause to think mid-sentence, and perhaps repetition blindness is why I rarely pick this kind of error up on my own when trying to proofread.

Visual attention

When attending to visual stimuli, our brains pick out particular patterns that seem relevant based on factors like oriented edges, colour contrast, intensity, and motion. When our focus shifts, we’re initially slow to notice something happening in the area we just shifted our focus away from; this is referred to as inhibition of return.

Besides paying attention to the visual area that we’re focused on, we’re also able to maintain some level of covert spatial attention, noticing things in the periphery of our visual field.

Object attention refers to our tendency to prioritize all aspects of a discrete object for processing. If I’m having a conversation with you, I’m more likely to notice your shoes than the shoes of the person sitting next to you, because even though your shoes aren’t relevant to our conversation, they are part of the object that is you.

Attention and effort

Effortless attention is focused on absorbing activities, and it doesn’t feel like it involves much (if any) exertion. This tends to happen with enjoyable activities where there is a balance of challenges and skills. It involves a combination of arousal, control, and relaxation, and there is a sense of flow.

For attention tasks that do require effort, there are certain factors that can influence the amount of effort we exert. People who are sleep-deprived have difficulty with tasks requiring sustained attention, but attention can be improved by increasing potential rewards for the tasks, adding novelty or irregularity, or increasing stress.

Getting personal

I find it fascinating how our brains are able to pick out relevant bits from the massive amount of sensory input we get. It’s particularly interesting that we can pick out our name being said in a conversation we’re not really listening to.

I have a hard time doing tasks that require conscious attention when there’s a lot of auditory stimulation that I need to filter out. I only listen to music when I’m doing things like colouring that don’t require much thought or things that are doable on autopilot. Trying to read or write with music on doesn’t work well for me at all. I think I used to be reasonably good at task switching, but now it takes far too much brainpower to be able to do easily.

Visually, I tend to be oblivious to things I’m not actively paying attention to, and still fairly oblivious even to things I am paying some attention to. The first time I watched the gorilla video, I didn’t see the gorilla. In that study where an experimenter was asking for directions and half of the participants didn’t realize they were talking to a different person, I would absolutely be in the group that didn’t notice the new person.

How do you do with multi-tasking and task switching? Do you find it easier to maintain attention with one sense than with another?

References

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 headshot

Ashley L. Peterson

BScPharm BSN MPN

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

27 thoughts on “What Is… Attention”

  1. I’ve heard about that selective attention video but hadn’t seen it before. I did notice the unusual stimulus (because I was looking for it) but got the number of passes wrong. Such an interesting post, Ashley!

  2. I am fairly OK with multi-tasking if it only is about one project at a time and includes the tasks relevant to that unique project. But (it is a big but) if I am asked to multi-task on two or more projects simultaneously I am often if not usually unsuccessful. That has been a reason for not being able to function productively in the workplace.

  3. I am super sensitive to auditory stimulation, I cannot concentrate if there is noise. If there is too much noise I go into panic mode. I have super hearing in the upper and lower registers and am a little fuzzy in the middle registers.

    As for the video – no I didn’t see the gorilla but I also didn’t register the people in the white shirts except as an annoyance. My attention went immediately to the people in the black shirts. I couldn’t count basketballs passes by anyone because the basketballs didn’t really register either. Wonky vision? Wonky brain?

  4. Tried to read but I’ll have to come back to it. Experiencing difficult transition in meds and I can’t pay attention! I’ve had trouble reading some things lately, difficulty processing. And difficulty concentrating to write thisl I really appreciate your deep dive on things I didn’t need diving.

  5. When I read articles of this degree of substance, I always experience a fear that I won’t be able to finish or comprehend the article. The fear then gets in the way of my focus, sort of like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Almost no one believes me, but I am a very poor reader.

    So in this case I stopped after the video. I counted eleven and did not see the gorilla. I also wanted to comment on the cocktail effect, and ask a question.

    It is said that many orchestra conductors have a kind of hearing that enables them to sift out the different instruments in different places where they sit, and tune into them individually despite the surrounding sounds. My hearing also functions much like this. I have also found that I will hear things very far down the block as though they are close to me, as long as there are not interfering sounds in the way.

    My question is this. Is this actually a function of my hearing, or of my awareness/attention/etc.? Is it an auditory thing or a cerebral thing? I’ve been assuming all my life it’s a kind of hearing, similar to what is reported in some orchestra conductors. Since I’ve learned I have ADHD however, it seems to me that it might also be a function of the ADHD on some level.

    1. I believe you.

      I believe everyone who says/admits they are a very poor reader.

      [because there is a lot of stigma about not acquiring or incompletely having this skill].

      There is a LOT that goes on between sensory input [in this case your hearing] and by the time it gets into your brain as a signal.

      Australia has just released the ADHD practice guidelines. The very first ones – in July 2022 – and they stick until 2027.

      Interference is a big deal for the brain because it makes it “multi-task” and it DIVIDES attention.

      Sebastian Dern studied the attention tunnel as part of monotropism [a theory about the interest system developed by the late Dinah Murray].

      Mono – one. Trop – focus. Ism – a theory on how we do it.

      Ah – the orchestrators and their selective hearing!

      It is part of the bigger phenomenon known as STIMULUS SELECTIVITY.

      Now if you know about stimulus and response – probably our RESPONSES are not so very SELECTIVE.

        1. A.P. and anyone who is interested in the ADHD guidelines for Australian practitioners and those with lived experience:

          https://adhdguideline.aadpa.com.au

          [Australian ADHD Professionals Association are the ones who made them through the research and teaching process].

          And there are these fact sheets which I had not noticed in my hustle and bustle to fill in the e-mail last week.

          You can also read it section by section if you like – for example: “Identification” is the first chapter.

          The Research Questions are put into sieves and filters for icons.

  6. I’m the same way as you with listening to music while reading or writing. I couldn’t focus because they are both mental activities. However, I can listen to podcasts or music while cleaning. Also, my focus tends to be shot most of the time. If someone talks while I’m saying something, I can’t hear what they said. I downloaded the app elevate. It’s helping me increase my focus.

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