Most of us are aware that a certain degree of attention is required in order to have a successful outcome of any given day. Most of us have not given much thought, however, to the function of attention itself and how important it is to our everyday functioning.
Attention is a concept that is studied in the area of cognitive psychology and is separate but related to the concept of perception. “Attention refers to the processes used to monitor and focus on incoming information” (Robinson-Riegler, p. 106). Unlike some other cognitive functions, attention does not have an unlimited capacity in that the human mind is not capable of attending to an unlimited amount of tasks at once. Attention is a limited cognitive process that takes place in which the brain is constantly monitoring both internal and external events, then deciding which event will be the current area of focus (Robinson-Riegler, 2008). Attention is a strategic process by which a person monitors, decides, and allows the selected information to be passed into the conscious mind.
This limitation of attention is demonstrated through a study conducted by Loose, et al. in 2001. Proving that the brain does have a limited capacity for dividing attention, the study involved performing an MRI on subjects that were in the process of dividing their attention. Participants divided their attention between visual and auditory stimuli, which increased the activity in the corresponding primary and secondary sensory areas. The results of this study concluded that when attention is divided between both areas of stimuli, “the activation in the sensory areas is decreased, possibly due to a limited capacity of the system for controlled processing.” This study demonstrates how the activity in one part of the brain can be active and functioning well, but when another area of the brain attempts to function at once, the activity in the original part is decreased, showing a strain on the brain.
Attention does originate through sensory functions and most of the information being received is via the visual and auditory functions. Two types of attention that originate through the visual sensory function are called spatial and object-based (Robinson-Riegler, 2008). Spatial attention refers to paying attention to a region of space in front view and has been compared to being similar to a spotlight or a zoom lens (Robinson-Riegler, 2008). An example of spatial attention would be the space a person views while driving. Object-based refers to paying attention to certain objects that are considered to be important or significant (Robinson-Riegler, 2008). An example of this visual attention type would be a potential hazard a person may encounter while driving, such as a large puddle or patch of ice. Research currently indicates that people are able to use either attention types, but it is not clear of the relationship of the two types (Robinson-Riegler, 2008).
Auditory sensory function also acts as a magnet for attracting attention and is similar to the visual function in that attention can be focused on a specific item, or can be spanned out to hear many things all at once. But it is difficult, if not impossible, to pay attention to more than one significant sound at a time. Information can also be gathered while unintentionally listening to a whole room of conversations. This can be referred to as the cocktail party phenomenon and this is described as being a tendency to hear significant information, while not intentionally to do so (Robinson-Riegler, 2008).
In terms of all the senses, several types of attention have been identified, two of which include both divided and selected attention types (Robinson-Riegler, 2008). Divided attention and selective attention are similar in that they are categorized as attention types, but both are different because of a single-task/multi-task factor. They are similar in that both require a fair degree of mental focus, but the focus of attention on tasks is different (Robinson-Riegler, 2008). Divided attention can be described as “multi-tasking,” or performing multiple tasks in the same period. Selective attention can be described as the ability to focus on one task when multiple, or competing stimuli are present and have ability to distract from the one task that is being performed (Robinson-Riegler, 2008).
Loose, R., Kaufmann, C., Auer, D., & Lange, K. (2001, November 27). Human prefrontal and
sensory cortical activity during divided attention tasks. Institute of Experimental
Psychology. Retrieved December 20, 2008, from
Robinson-Riegler, G., & Robinson-Riegler, B. (2008). Cognitive psychology: Applying the
science of the mind. Allyn and Bacon: MA.