Attention allows you to navigate through a crowded world brimming with
information and distractions.
Without the ability to focus your limited processing resources, you wouldn’t be able
to carry on a meaningful conversation, enjoy a piece of music, understand a joke or
learn new things.
William James defines attention as, “Everyone knows what attention is. It is the
taking possession by the mind in the 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, and is a condition, which
has a real opposite in the confused, dazed and scatterbrained state.
At the centre of the definition is Selection – attending to something causes the
object of attention to be selected apart from the rest of the unattended objects. i.e.
when you first put clothes on, you feel them touch your skin, but as the day goes by
these stimuli fade into the background as other stimuli are competing for your
Attention also refers to our conscious ability to attend to the information that is
relevant to our goals. i.e. walking thru a grocery store you are actively selecting
where to focus your attention.
We are remarkably adept at distinguishing the relevant from the irrelevant
information in the environment. i.e. driving thru busy traffic becomes more difficult
as you talk on the phone.
Automatic and Controlled Attention
Automatic Processes- triggered involuntarily by external events and triggers
the “capture” of attention.
o Assumed to operate in fast, efficient and obligatory matter.
o Recall from unit two on learning that some cues seem to be more
noticeable and lead to stronger and quicker association with paired
events – salience.
A salient piece of information is one that appears to naturally
pop-out at you. i.e. loud signals and lights of emergency vehicle.
o Second type of automatic process related to learning – driving a car is a
learned motor skill involving many steps. After practice it is easy to
operate a vehicle to the point where some people report to have
“automatic driving experiences” where they plan to go one place but
accidently end up somewhere else.
Controlled Processes- guide attention voluntarily and consciously to object of
o Assumed to require cognitive effort and therefore will operate more
o Driving a car thru busy traffic - you consciously choose to pay attention
to the many aspects of the environment to guide this goal-directed
behavior. Here you are using flexible controlled processes involved in
conscious attention as you choose when to make lane changes, speed up,
slow down, and engage in a conversation or change the radio station. o Why do you turn down the radio while looking for a new address or
when making an important driving decision?
This demonstrates that it’s difficult to consciously attend to
many aspects of the task-environment at the same time because
the resources for controlled processes are limited.
The Spotlight Model
According to Mike Posner, there’s an analogous process to visual attention – just as a
physical spotlight illuminates only part of the stage at a time, your attentional
spotlight focuses on only part of the environment at a time.
o Attention can be consciously directed across the visual scene as you look for
your friend at the crowded after-party.
o Attention can also be hijacked by unconscious processes that can quickly
grab your attention so you can avoid an oncoming speeding car as you step
off the sidewalk.
As your attention moves around your field of vision, objects falling within the
spotlight are processes preferentially: you can respond to objects faster and with
We can bring these questions to the lab to experimentally manipulate the
Example: as a subject, you are asked to fix your attention to the middle box on the
screen. At some point, a target will appear in either the left or right box. It is your
job to indicate the correct target location as quickly as possible. Just before the
target appears, a potential target box briefly flashes. The flashing box serves as a cue
for your attention. The target can then follow in either the cued or uncued location.
One question that researchers using this paradigm are interested in is measuring
the influence of the flashing cue on target detection time.
Consider the trials in which the target appears in the left box; we find the target
detection is quicker when it is correctly cued then uncued.
The set-up of this experiment suggests that this difference in target detection is
governed by automatic rather than the conscious control of attention.
Set up the experiment so that the attentional cue does provide accurate predictive
information about where the target is likely to occur, the target appears in the cued
location more than 50% of the time.
Researchers may very the predictability of cues, to study consciously controlled
shifts of attention. Under many circumstances, consciously controlled shifts of
attention can lead to faster responses to targets that appear in the location indicated
by the cue than to targets that appear opposite the location indicated