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What is Attention?


Explanations > Perception > Attention > What is Attention?

Heightened arousal | The spotlight | Limited focus | Attentive by design | Selective attention | Conscious or unconscious | Internal or external | So what?


What, exactly, is attention? We all know what it is from our own experience, and it is certainly important in changing minds. Without attention, others do not listen to what you say, let alone consider your suggestions.

Heightened arousal

To be awake and conscious is to have some kind of attention, either to the world around us or to our thoughts. We also have attention during the false consciousness of dreaming. In everyday life, attention is linked with arousal as it cues this state in readiness for action. This may also create a state of intensity, where we put significant effort into attending (for example to a nearby threat or item of interest).

The spotlight

William James' Spotlight model views attention as being like a torch, with a central focus, a margin and a fringe. An evolution of this is Eriksen and St. James' Zoom-Lens Model, which adds the ability to zoom in and zoom out, like a camera.

Interestingly, we can pay attention to things without pointing at them, for example where we notice an attractive person at a party and watch them covertly without staring at them. Despite this, we may still leak small cues that lets them know we are interested. This is how many romances have started.

Attention can also be a very broad light, for example where a martial artist spreads their attention to take in all movement around them. Prey also spread their attention wide, which is why they often have eyes on either side of their head in order to maximize their field of view.

Limited focus

Attention is affected by our limited capacity. When we are attracted by something, there is competition with other items for further attention.

As we live there are many things that could take our attention at any moment, yet consciousness is a serial process that limits attention. We can hence only attend directly to very few things at a time (and are best when we are attending to one). Attention acts as a focus, helping us gain information about those things that might be of greater interest or importance for us.

The choice of where to attend may be automatic (as when responding to an attack) or a more thoughtful decision. We may cope with multiple demands by either switching between items (divided attention) or reducing the number of items to which we attend, often ideally to one.

Wickens’ (1984) Multiple Resource Theory suggests that we have multiple (rather than one) pools of resource across senses, stages of perception and reasoning that we can use at the same time, allowing us to attend in complex ways. However we may still run out of these finite resources and so our attention is limited by our workload.

We are also limited by the duration and intensity of attention that we can use without drifting off or being distracted. Like the blinking of an eye, we often do not realize we have temporarily less attention than we intend. Jha et al (2007) showed that mindfulness training can increase our ability to sustain attention. This is perhaps unsurprising, given that mediation is very largely about attention.

Attentive by design

We are designed for visual attention. In the middle of the retina of the eye, which is the central point of our vision and the focus point of where we look, is the fovea centralis. This gives us sharp vision at our point of attention. Outside this, our vision becomes less detailed and, in the outer regions, black and white (though our brains fill in hues so we think we have full vision). When we are looking hard at something, we pay more attention to this central detail and ignore peripheral information. We can focus on other senses too, though this is done more by the brain.

This ability to ignore that which is not important and focus on that which is important is a very useful attribute that has evolved to a high degree in many species, which indicates its evolutionary value. Attention is also related to automatic action, such as when we block a punch without thinking too hard about it.

In humans, our consciousness and complexity lets us be more deliberate in our attending, though deeper factors still pull our attention away to more primitive cues.

Selective attention

We have a remarkable ability to choose the things to which we pay attention and ignore those which are not important. We can even ignore pain when there is motivation to pay attention elsewhere (for example when we are fighting). Other examples include not hearing ticking clocks and the real world 'disappearing' when we are reading an engrossing novel. In what is called the 'Cocktail Party Effect' we are able to hear just one voice when many people are speaking.

There have been a number of models proposed to describe how we are able to pay attention to a limited part of our sensory input, effectively ignoring the rest, including:

  • Broadbent's (1958) Filter Model of attention in hearing suggests we have a sensory buffer that stores inputs, from which we select items for further attention, based on physical characteristics of the received information. In this way we can listen to information from one ear, ignoring that from the other ear.
  • Treisman's (1964) Attenuation Model is similar to Broadbent's, but suggests we attenuate rather than eliminate unwanted information. It is as if we have a volume control that can turn down things we do not want to hear.
  • Treisman and Gellade's (1980) Feature Integration Theory suggests that attention attention acts to collate different features of an object into distinct experiences.

Conscious or unconscious

Attention can happen through conscious and unconscious routes, typically being driven automatically by external events or by our deliberate choices (Theeuwes, 1991).

In stimulus-driven attention (also known as bottom-up or exogenous attention), we are unconsciously forced to pay attention to an external event. This is typically something unusual that could be a threat. Evolution has taught us that attention to such events could save our lives.

In Goal-driven attention (also known as top-down, endogenous, attentional control or executive attention), we consciously choose to pay attention to things of interest. Typically these are related to things of general or specific importance to us. For example I have a general interest in cars, so will pay attention to adverts for cars. I may have a specific interest in lions and will go out of my way to visit a zoo to spend much time with them.

Internal or external

A particular separation of attention is between inner (endogenous) thoughts and outer (exogenous) experiences, as appear through our senses (Posner, 1980). When we sit in a meeting at work or just in the company of others, we may struggle to keep attention to people who are talking about things where we have little interest. As we drift off into internal thought, either thinking about the work topics, for example in formulating what we want to say, or daydreaming about other parts of our life.

By and large, external events can grab us more strongly than internal thoughts, although individuals spend more or less in their inner worlds as opposed to connecting with others and the world around them. External stimuli that grab attention can include loud noises, bright hues, unexpected events and so on. Internal events that grab attention include ideas, sudden thoughts and revelations.

So what?

Understand how attention works and then use it in the first step to gain attention to what you have to say. Then work to both gain it and sustain it.

See also

Theories about attention


Broadbent, D. (1958). Perception and Communication. London: Pergamon Press.

Eriksen, C. and St James, J. (1986). Visual attention within and around the field of focal attention: A zoom lens model. Perception and Psychophysics. 40, 4, 225–240.

Jha A.P. Krompinger J. and Baime M.J. (2007). Mindfulness training modifies subsystems of attention. Cognitive Affective Behavioral Neuroscience, 7, 2, 109-19.

Posner, M. I. (1980). Orienting of Attention. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 32, 3–25.

Theeuwes, J. (1991). Exogenous and endogenous control of attention - the effect of visual onsets and offsets. Perception and Psychophysics. 49, 1, 83–90.

Treisman, A. (1964). Selective attention in man. British Medical Bulletin, 20, 12-16.

Treisman, A. and Gelade, G. (1980). A feature-integration theory of attention. Cognitive Psychology 12, 1, 97–136.

Wickens, C.D. (1984). "Processing resources in attention", in R. Parasuraman & D.R. Davies (Eds.), Varieties of attention, (pp. 63–102). New York: Academic Press.

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