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The contemporary approach to attention has been strongly influenced by neurophysiological research on the attention, or arousal, systems of the brain (Lindsley 1960). Attention as behavior is associated with the responses of these systems and also with the neuromuscular responses that govern the orientation of the eyes, ears, and other sensory surfaces of the body. This midcentury emphasis on response processes is a considerable departure from the classical view, as expressed by Titchener (1908) or William James (1890, chapter 11), that attention is an aspect of the structure of consciousness.

Some categories from the classical approach continue to be important. For example, prior entry, the notion that “the object of attention comes into consciousness more quickly than objects we are not attending to” (Titchener 1908, p. 251), is the basis for the common use of response latency as a measure of attentiveness. Similarly, Wundt’s position (see Titchener 1908, p. 263) that attention is discontinuous and intermittent foreshadowed modern models of attention that emphasize discrete processes (e.g., Broadbent 1958). However, the classical approach as a whole was unsuccessful, because it could not generate clear and productive paradigms for research on attention. Thus, a major textbook introduced its conventional coverage of this topic with the admission that “the status of attention in systematic psychology has been uncertain and dubious for a long time” (Woodworth & Schlosberg [1938] 1954, p. 72). The successful neurophysiological analysis mentioned earlier, and the new behavioral approaches described below, have revived interest in attention as a major topic in the behavioral sciences.

There is some tendency to equate the capacity for sustained attention or for encompassing a broad field in one’s “attention span” with the biological evolution of complex behavior. It is well to keep in mind when considering this position that the attention systems of the brain that have been well identified, the brain stem and thalamic reticular systems, are phylogenetically among the most primitive systems in the vertebrate central nervous system. Some aspects of attentive behavior should therefore depend on very primitive functions that occur over a wide range of vertebrates. The progressive evolution of attention may occur through the appearance of mechanisms that permit the organism to choose whether to observe A or B in the external environment or even to observe the internal environment instead by attending to “stored” memories [seeFantasy].

In the laboratory, attentiveness is usually studied in relation to discrimination or detection performance. For such studies it is useful to redefine attentiveness as the emission of observing responses that act to select an effective signal from among the available sensory stimuli. The nature of the observing response as a single unit of behavior is discussed in the next section. The section entitled “Vigilance” deals with the properties of relatively large numbers of observing responses emitted over a period of time.

The observing response

Three rather different approaches to observing responses are current in the mid-1960s: (1) as a response in classical conditioning; (2) as a directly measurable response in instrumental conditioning; and (3) as a theoretical construct for the analysis of discrimination performance.

Observing and classical conditioning. The first and oldest approach to observing responses, developed in the context of Pavlovian classical conditioning, is concerned with the orienting reflex [seeStimulation drives]. This “reflex” is part of the unconditioned response to a novel stimulus, and the crucial point is that the response pattern follows essentially all novel stimuli. It is therefore not the unconditioned response to a specific stimulus. The complete orienting-reflex pattern includes neural, muscular, and autonomic components. These are measured by electroencephalographic (EEG) effects, such as alpha-blocking; by limb, head, ear, and eye orientations; and by changes in pupillary diameter, in galvanic skin responses, and in heart rate. The response is extinguished under repeated presentation of the stimulus. However, slight changes in the stimuli will evoke the response again.

The physiological analysis of the orienting reflex relates it to the reticular activating system at brainstem and thalamic levels. Much of the research on the orienting reflex, which originated in the Soviet Union, is described in the English translation of Sokolov’s Perception and the Conditioned Reflex (1958; see also Berlyne 1960).

The Western equivalent of the orienting reflex is the arousal response, defined physiologically as a replacement of high-amplitude slow waves in the EEG by low-amplitude fast waves (Lindsley 1960, p. 1563). Alpha-blocking is a good example of such arousal; it occurs in resting subjects who exhibit good alpha waves in their EEG (10 per second high-amplitude sinusoidal waves) and is manifested by the complete disappearance of alpha when a visual signal is presented. Alphablocking and other arousal effects are associated with excitatory and inhibitory systems in the reticular formation of the brain.

The arousal systems are also involved in the enhancement and suppression of cortical evoked responses and of motor responses to peripheral stimulation (Lindsley 1960, p. 1586). They may therefore be thought of as systems that “gate” incoming information by enhancing or attenuating incoming signals. In this sense, these systems permit one to consider observing responses as being of varying intensity.

Observing and instrumental conditioning. Western psychologists usually understand the observing response in terms of the instrumental conditioning paradigm. The response occurs prior to perception and is instrumental in permitting perception to occur.

Attempts at direct measurement of observing as an instrumental response have often used eye movements and visual signals. Such studies (see Carmichael & Dearborn 1947) assume, essentially, that shifts of attention can be equated with changes in eye fixation. Perception is diminished during a saccadic eye movement, and the “blind” period may last for from 5 to 40 milliseconds, depending on the arc covered by the eye. The duration of a typical eye fixation, in reading, for example, is of the order of 200 to 400 milliseconds. To the extent that attention mechanisms act in parallel with eye orientations, they would act within those time limits [seeVision, article oneye movements].

The problem with this approach is that paying attention cannot be equated in a simple way with eye fixations. This is illustrated in a study by Baker on eye movements during a vigilance task with easily detected signals (1963, p. 151). Baker found that of 100 missed signals 99 occurred despite the fact that his observers’ eyes were fixated directly upon the display. His subjects were looking without seeing, a familiar phenomenon in everyday life. In studies concerned with the direction, rather than the level, of attention it is much easier to base conclusions on eye-movement data. For example, Berlyne (1960, pp. 98–100) found that eye orientations were biased toward more complex and novel visual stimuli, and in that case it was proper to infer that attention was biased in the same way.

If a discrete measurable movement is necessary in order to receive a stimulus, that movement is, by definition, an observing response. Butler’s wellknown studies of curiosity in monkeys (see Berlyne 1960, p. 154) are based on a window-opening response that fits this paradigm. Butler showed that his monkeys emitted observing responses, that is, opened the window, with the only obvious reinforcement of being able to look out at objects in their environment. Significantly, the monkeys responded differently to different objects, which implies that the observing response was reinforced more by some objects than by others.

In a carefully designed experiment with human observers, which also fits this paradigm, Atkinson (1961) was able to show that the observers would select one of two possible observing responses with a predictable probability depending on the reinforcement schedule. His work is of additional interest because of his use of a mathematical model of discrimination learning in which the observing response is treated as one of a chain of responses in the discrimination process.

An application of this kind of technique by Holland (1958) to the analysis of human vigilance involved a switch operation to illuminate a display on which signals were presented. The observer had to operate the switch very rapidly if any visual information was to be obtained from the display. Holland was able to show that the signals acted as reinforcements for the observing responses in the same way that food pellets can reinforce bar pressing in operant conditioning. It is important to note that Holland’s results can be obtained only if the response switch is hard to operate. This implies that a “cost” must be associated with an observing response if it is to be used in conditioning situations (see Jerison & Pickett 1963, pp. 220–222).

Observing as a theoretical construct. Approaches in which the observing response is defined by its theoretical role have the important function of making precise statements about the appropriate dimensions for the analysis of attention. Broadbent (1958) has developed an influential theory in which the observing response is considered as a filtering process that acts to select a message from among the stimuli reaching the senses for a “final common path” in perception. The problems raised by Broadbent and discussed more recently by Sanders (1963) raise a number of issues that are not presently resolved. Is attention a single-channel or multichannel operation? Is it a continuous or a discrete process? Present evidence favors the position that it is a discrete, single-channel process, and this view, in turn, raises additional questions. What is the duration of an act of attention? Is there a significant switching time required to shift attention from one point to another?

Questions such as these are being attacked in experiments performed during the middle 1960s. As an example, a study by Schmidt and Kristofferson (1963) suggests a duration for a “moment” of attention on the order of fifty milliseconds and assumes instantaneous switching. Studies based on Broadbent’s filter theory have also appeared, which contribute to the analysis of the duration of an observing response, or, to use Sanders’ term, a “selective act.” It seems clear that the minimum duration is less than 250 milliseconds, but the details of the mechanism of the observing response, the more precise specification of the duration, and the understanding of the sequence of events in selective attention remain incompletely solved research problems.

If one visualizes the observing response as the opening or closing of a shutter of variable size to admit a sensory message, then spatial as well as temporal aspects of the response are important. Swets (1964, chapter 29) reports experiments on the detectability of pure tones when the observer is uncertain about their pitch. Performance was found to depend on central factors as well as on the frequency analysis at the level of the sense cells predicted by auditory theory. The central factors are equivalent to the shutter size or shape. One of the interesting points that Swets makes is that several different types of shutters may be available to the observer. One shutter may be tuned to a single band of frequencies, another to several bands. The available data are consistent with the notion that the observer selects among the shutters to satisfy his preferred strategy for observing in a particular task.

Significant advances have been made by each approach to observing responses. In the case of the orienting reflex and arousal, very important qualitative and some quantitative results have related behavioral to neurophysiological levels of analysis. In addition to providing a description of the activity of the organism in the alerted condition, this approach provides the means for measuring the intensity of observing. The approach emphasizing the direct measurement of observing as an instrumental response has suggested that such a response can be reinforced by signals and other stimuli, that it involves a “cost” to the organism, and that it is subject to conditioning and extinction. The indirect analysis of observing as a theoretical construct has raised precise questions and may eventually yield equally precise answers about temporal and other properties of the observing response, such as its switching time, its fixation time, and the selectivity of its filtering action.


The “vigilance” situation is a useful experimental approach to attention as a continuing activity involving populations of freely emitted observing responses. It deals with the performance of observers during prolonged vigils at tasks requiring the detection of occasionally presented signals. The signals, though weak, are readily detectable by an alert observer, and a failure to report a signal may be ascribed to a failure of attention. In this situation the observer emits many observing responses, and their characteristics are analyzed by sampling them at the moment when a signal is presented. The probability that an observing response will be emitted under given conditions is estimated by the ratio of detections to signals under those conditions.

In a vigilance task an observer watches a display, such as a meter or a cathode-ray tube, and observes a recurring nonsignal stimulus. A specified change in the stimulus is a “signal,” and the observer’s task is merely to report the signals when they occur. One of the early vigilance tasks, designed to simulate a radar display, was N. H. Mackworth’s (1950) “clock test,” in which the stimuli were steps of a clock hand and a long step was the signal. Other tasks have used displays with a continuous nonsignal stimulus (e.g., steady light) and clearly defined signals (e.g., onset of flickering). In most research on this topic observers worked alone and without interruption for an hour or more on a task such as Mackworth’s, but the basic effects can be obtained with a variety of displays.

Important research findings. The most important results of research on vigilance can be summarized under three headings: the decrement function, display parameters, and subject parameters. More detailed expositions of those results are available in several surveys of the literature (e.g., Jerison & Pickett 1963; Leplat 1962; Schmidtke & Micko 1964) and in the symposium on vigilance edited by Buckner and McGrath (1963).

The decrement function. The central result in vigilance studies is that although detection performance is nearly perfect at the beginning of a long vigil, it drops rapidly and appears to reach a plateau after 15 minutes or so. The problem in analysis has been to account for the decrement and for the plateau level, and this has been done by manipulating display parameters and subject parameters.

Display parameters. There is evidence (Jerison 1965) that the decrement may occur only if observing responses are elicited at a high rate, either by presenting nonsignal stimuli very frequently or by entirely omitting a cue about when to observe. When the decrement occurs, the level of the plateau varies with signal intensity, signal duration, and the conditional probability of a signal, given a nonsignal stimulus. The performance function with respect to visual signals is altered if there is uncertainty about both the spatial and the temporal positions of the signal. If there is spatial uncertainty, a demand is placed on the observer to search, or scan, the display, and patterns of search behavior can be “biased” toward higher probability regions by presenting signals with different probabilities at different positions on the display. Performance requiring search as well as attentiveness is also affected by “natural” scanning patterns, which tend to be biased toward contour lines, edges, and toward the center of a display.

Subject parameters. Performance on vigilance tasks is affected by cognitive, social, and individualdifference variables. Knowledge of results improves performance, as does the presence of a peer or an authority figure. Performance tends to be fairly stable within subjects, with test–retest reliabilities on the order of .80. Individual differences are very marked; an experiment based on 20 observers will typically have several who detect all the signals and some who miss 70 or 80 per cent of them. False alarms (errors of commission) tend to be restricted to a fraction of the subject population.

Theoretical analysis of vigilance. Theories of vigilance as of 1961 have been reviewed by Frankmann and Adams (1962). Since that time a clear theoretical advance has occurred with the application of decision theory to the problem. When the application is to decisions about whether or not to report a signal, then vigilance is a special case of signal-detectability theory (Swets 1964). Among those who attempt such an application, Jane Mackworth and Maurice Taylor (1963) consider the major vigilance effects as producing changes in the detectability index, d’, of the signal, whereas Broadbent and Gregory (1963) consider the effects in terms of changes of criterion, β, toward increasing severity as a vigil progresses. Both d’ and β are precisely denned variables in signal-detectability theory.

Decision-theory models are parsimonious, because they permit a unified analysis of expectancy effects associated with signal probability and of motivational effects associated with the importance of observing, detecting, and reporting signals. These effects may be analyzed separately and also combined in a single measure, the “expected value” of a response.

Jerison and Pickett (1963) have suggested that the decision-theory approach may be applied to the emission of observing responses rather than detection-indicating responses. They assume that the decision whether or not to observe depends on the utility of observing and on the probability that observing will be reinforced by a signal. The approach stresses a role for the ease or difficulty of paying attention and for the amount and kind of reinforcement for paying attention. Knowledge of results, for example, may affect the utility of observing by removing ambiguity about whether or not a signal, that is, a reinforcement or payoff, has been delivered. All theories of vigilance (e.g., Baker 1963) are concerned with the role of expectancy; a decision-theory approach provides a quantitative definition for expectancy as the a priori conditional probability of a signal given a stimulus (see Broadbent in Buckner & McGrath 1963, p. 166).

The basic problems in contemporary studies of attention are to describe and analyze the observing response as a physiological and psychophysical event or sequence of events and to show its relationship to other behavior. Great successes have been achieved in the resolution of the first problem by the discovery and analysis of the attention systems of the brain. Important, though less dramatic, advances have occurred in the more purely behavioral areas. The spatial and temporal parameters of the observing response are being studied within behavioral theories, such as Broadbent’s filter theory (1958) and the theory of signal detectability (Swets 1964). The conditions under which observing responses are emitted are also analyzed within a decision-theory framework (Jerison & Pickett 1963), and additional insights are suggested by the research paradigms of operant conditioning (Holland 1958) and by the mathematical models of discrimination learning (Atkinson 1961).

At mid-century, attention is a rejuvenated topic in psychology. “Organs” of attention have been discovered in the brain, and physiological and behavioral methods have been developed that are yielding new and clearer insights into the mechanisms of attention.


[Directly related are the entriesHearing; Nervous system; Senses; Vision. Additional relevant material may be found inDecision theory; Learning, articles onclassical conditioninganddiscrimination learning.]


Atkinson, Richard C. 1961 The Observing Response in Discrimination Learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology 62:253–262.

Baker, C. H. 1963 Further Toward a Theory of Vigilance. Pages 127–170 in Donald N. Buckner and James J. McGrath (editors), Vigilance: A Symposium. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Berlyne, D. E. 1960 Conflict, Arousal, and Curiosity. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Broadbent, Donald E. 1958 Perception and Communication. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Broadbent, Donald E.; and GREGORY, MARGARET 1963 Vigilance Considered as a Statistical Decision. British Journal of Psychology 54:309–323.

Buckner, Donald N.; and MCGRATH, JAMES J. (editors) 1963 Vigilance: A Symposium. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Carmichael, Leonard; and Dearborn, Walter F. 1947 Reading and Visual Fatigue. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Frankmann, Judith P.; and Adams, Jack A. 1962 Theories of Vigilance. Psychological Bulletin 59:257–272.

Haider, Manfred; Spong, P.; and Lindsley, D. B. 1964 Attention, Vigilance, and Cortical Evoked Potentials in Humans. Science New Series 145:180–182.

Holland, James G. 1958 Human Vigilance. Science New Series 128:61–67.

James, William (1890) 1962 The Principles of Psychology. New York: Smith.

Jerison, Harry J. 1965 Human and Animal Vigilance. Perceptual and Motor Skills 21:580–582.

Jerison, Harry J.; and Pickett, Ronald M. 1963 Vigilance: A Review and Re-evaluation. Human Factors 5:211–238.

Leplat, Jacques 1962 Travaux de surveillance et d’inspection: Bibliographic commentée de quelques recherches expérimentales. Bulletin du Centre d’Études et Recherches Psychotechniques 11:155–175.

Lindsley, Donald B. 1960 Attention, Consciousness, Sleep and Wakefulness. Volume 3, pages 1553–1593 in American Physiological Society, Handbook of Physiology. Section 1: Neurophysiology. Edited by H. W. Magoun et al. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins.

Mackworth, Jane F.; and TAYLOR, MAURICE M. 1963 The d’ Measure of Signal Detectability in Vigilancelike Situations. Canadian Journal of Psychology 17: 302–325.

Mackworth, N. H. 1950 Researches on the Measurement of Human Performance. Medical Research Council Special Report, No. 268. London: H.M. Stationery Office.

Sanders, Andries F. 1963 The Selective Process in the Functional Visual Field. Assen (Netherlands): Van Gorcum.

Schmidt, Marianne W.; and Kristofferson, Alfred B. 1963 Discrimination of Successiveness: A Test of a Model of Attention. Science New Series 139:112–113.

Schmidtke, Heinz; and Micro, Christoph 1964 Untersuchungen über die Reaktionszeit bei Dauerbeobachtung. Forschungsberichte des Landes NordrheinWestfalen, No. 1360. Cologne and Opladen (Germany): Westdeutscher Verlag.

Sokolov, Evgenii N. (1958) 1963 Perception and the Conditioned Reflex. New York: Macmillan. → First published as Vospriiatie i uslovnyi refleks.

Swets, John A. (editor) 1964 Signal Detection and Recognition by Human Observers: Contemporary Readings. New York: Wiley.

Titchener, Edward B. 1908 Lectures on the Elementary Psychology of Feeling and Attention. New York: Macmillan.

Woodworth, Robert S. (1938) 1954 Experimental Psychology. Rev. ed. by Robert S. Woodworth and Harold Schlosberg. New York: Holt.

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Because some forms of learning are critically dependent upon attention, it is important for educators to be familiar with modern developments in this field. The most widely known definition of attention extends back to the late 1800s. The psychologist and philosopher William James (18421910) defined it as "the taking possession of the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought" (pp. 403404).

This definition conveys intuitive feeling for the subject. However, it is common to break the subject down into two subdivisions: (1) arousal and (2) selection of information. The processes involved in arousal involve achieving and maintaining an alert state sufficient to remain in contact with environmental stimuli. This sense of attention separates the waking state from conditions such as sleep or coma. Selective attention refers to the processes involved in selecting information for consciousness, for immediate response, or for storing information in memory. The conscious content of selective attention is only a small subset of the information that could be available at any given moment. Thus, the ability to switch or orient one's attention is critical to the successful use of attention in any environment.

Attention can also be considered in terms of its underlying anatomy. It is useful for educators to think about attention as an organ system, not unlike the familiar organ systems of respiration and circulation. Attention has a distinct anatomy that carries out basic psychological functions and that can be influenced by specific brain injuries and states. The network involved in achieving an alert state involves midbrain centers that are the source of the chemical norepinepherine. This network appears to be asymmetric at the cortical level, with greatest involvement of the right cerebral hemisphere, particularly in the frontal regions. Two networks are involved in the process of selection of information. One of these relates to orienting to sensory information, and involves areas of the parietal lobe, frontal eye fields, and superior colliculus, which are also part of the eye movement system. A second network is related to attention to internal thoughts. This network involves areas of the frontal midline (anterior cingulate), the left and right lateral prefrontal cortex, and the underlying basal ganglia.

The Study of Attention

The study of attention has greatly expanded as new methods have become available for its study. From the early beginnings of psychology in the late 1880s, studies of attention employed simple experimental tasks that required rapid responses to single targetsor to one of a small number of targetsin an effort to study limitations in people's speed and capacity for attending to input information. A good example of the type of tasks used is the Stroop effect. This effect occurs when subjects are asked to respond to the color of ink in which a conflicting word may be written (e.g., the word blue written in red ink). Performance on this task requires an act of selection to ignore the word and respond to the ink color. Another task used to explore selection is a visual search task. It has been shown that attention can be efficiently summoned to any part of a natural scene in which luminance or motion clearly signal a change, but even radical changes of content that occur outside the focus of attention are not reported. This indicates that the subjective impression of being fully aware of the world around one is largely an illusion. People have very poor knowledge about things they are not currently attending to, but a very good ability to orient toward an area of change.

In the 1950s functional models of information flow in the nervous system were developed in conjunction with an interest in computer simulation of cognitive processes. In the 1970s studies using microelectrodes on alert monkeys showed that the firing rate of cells in particular brain areas were enhanced when the monkey attended to a stimulus within the cells' receptive field. In the 1980s and 1990s human neuroimaging studies allowed examination of the whole brain during tasks involving attention. These newer methods of study also improved the utility of more traditional methods, such as: (1) the kinds of experimental tasks discussed above, (2) the use of patients with lesions of particular brain areas, and (3) the use of recordings of brain waves (EEG) from scalp electrodes. The ability to trace anatomical changes over time has provided methods for validating and improving pharmacological and other forms of therapy.

Attention in Infants

Infants as young as four months old can learn to anticipate the location of an event and demonstrate this by moving their eyes to a location where the event will occur. Thus, caregivers can teach important aspects of where a child should focus, and they can also use orienting to counteract an infant's distress well before the infant begins to speak. Infants also show preferences for novel objects in the first few months of life. In early childhood, more complex forms of attentional control begin to emerge as the frontal areas undergo considerable development. These networks allow children to make selections in the face of conflicting response tendencies. Late in the first year, infants first show the ability to reach away from the line of sight, and later the developing toddler and preschooler begin to develop the ability to choose among conflicting stimuli and courses of action.

Infants come into the world with a definite set of reactions to their environment, and even siblings can be very different in their reactions to various events. These individual differences, which include individual differences in orienting and effortful control of attention, constitute temperament. One infant, for example, is easily frustrated, has only a brief attention span, and becomes upset with even moderate levels of stimulating play. Another may tolerate very rough play and frequently seek out exciting events, focusing on each interest so strongly that it is difficult to get the child's attention. Thus, even early in life, when attention serves mainly orienting functions, children will differ in what captures their interestand in how this interest is maintained. These functions will continue to serve the child during the school years, where interest accounts for about 10 percent of the variability in children's achievement. However, later-developing attention systems will prove to be even more important in schooling.

Effortful Control

Later in childhood, maturation of the frontal lobe produces more reliance on executive attention, allowing increased scope for methods of socialization. The strength and effectiveness of this later developing effortful control system is also an important source of temperamental differences. Among older children, some will be able to intentionally focus and switch attention easily, to use attention to inhibit actions they have been told not to perform, and to plan for upcoming activities. Other children will be less able to control their own attention and actions. These differences reflect effortful control and have been found to play an important role in the development of higher-level systems of morality and conscience as well as being generally important in the control and programming of action and emotion.


Children's abilities also differ in the cognitive domain, as is shown in tests of intelligence. Differences in cognitive ability rest in part on the frontal structures related to the development of the executive attention systems. Areas of the left and right ventral prefrontal cortex become active in questions that require general intelligence. A likely reason is that these areas are important for holding information in the mind, while other brain areas retrieve related knowledge that might be important in solving problems. The ability to solve problems like those present in intelligence tests requires both specific knowledge and the ability to retrieve information in response to the prompts present on the test. High-level attentional networks involving frontal areas are very important in this process.

The learning of new skills, such as reading and arithmetic, also requires attention so that relevant input can be stored. The storage of such information rests upon structures that lie deep within the temporal lobe. Attention appears to play an important role at several stages of acquisition of reading. It is important for subjects to be able to break visual and auditory words into their constituent letters or phonemes in order to gain knowledge of the alphabetic principle that allows visual letters to be related to word sounds. The role of frontal attentional networks also plays a key role in accessing word meanings.

Teachers are usually aware that maintaining an alert state in the school environment is dependent both upon factors that are intrinsic to the childsuch as adequate rest, good nutrition, and high motivationand those that can be controlled by the teacher, such as the use of novel and involving exercises at an appropriate level to challenge the student. Capturing the child's interest is important in fostering achievement, but effortful control allows the practice of skills that can lead to new interests, and the developing goal structures of children will allow the development of interest in activities or skills that will lead them to their chosen goals.

Teachers thus need to be aware of individual differences in the development of the mechanisms of selective attention important in the storage and retrieval of information relevant to various tasks. Assessment of attentional capacities may be very useful for this purpose. Children can then be encouraged by exercises appropriate to their level to sustain the effort necessary for effective problem solving. Assessment of the school environment may also be useful in considering children's attentional capacities. The application of effortful control can be tiring, and the opportunities for skill learning and for active play may be important in supporting its activity.

Finally, attention is also important in the development of children's social skills. When teachers point out aspects of other children's experiences and focus on the welfare of others, they can train the direction of a child's interest and concern. Again, this activity will be easier with some children than with others, but it can serve the goal of encouraging empathy and discouraging aggression in a child's development.

See also: Learning, subentry on Perceptual Processes.


James, William. 1890. Principles of Psychology. New York: Henry Holt.

Posner, Michael I., and Raichle, Marcus E. 1994. Images of Mind. New York: Scientific American Books.

Posner, Michael I., and Rothbart, Mary K. 2000. "Developing Mechanisms of Self-Regulation." Development and Psychopathology 12:427441.

Ruff, Holly A., and Rothbart, Mary K. 1996. Attention in Early Development: Themes and Variations. New York: Oxford University Press.

Michael I. Posner

Mary K. Rothbart

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The word "attention" comes from the Latin attention, itself derived from attendere, which means "to turn one's mind towards"to turn one's mind or perhaps one's senses. In any case, the term is currently very ambiguous, and all the more so since it is used in different senses by researchers and clinicians referring to quite varied epistemological horizons.

In France, Didier Houzel has made the most careful study of the concept in recent years, notably in relation to infant observation. According to this author, if the function of attention is only rarely mentioned in the psychoanalytic literature, it is in part due to the ambiguity it evokes and also in part because attention is traditionally linked to consciousness without there ever existing any clear definition of a possible unconscious attention.

Freud mentions attention for the first time in his book On Aphasia (1891b), where he discusses divided attention (geteilte Aufmerksamkeit ): "When I read proofs with the intention of paying special attention to the letters and other symbols, the meaning of what I am reading escapes me to such a degree that I require a second perusal for the purpose of correcting the style. If, on the other hand, I read a novel, which holds my interest, I overlook all misprints and it may happen that I retain nothing of the names of the persons figuring in the book except for some meaningless feature or perhaps the recollection that they were long or short, and that they contained an unusual letter such as x or z. Again, when I have to recite, whereby I have to pay special attention to the sound impressions of my words and to the intervals between them, I am in danger of caring too little about the meaning, and as soon as fatigue sets in I am reading in such a way that the listener can still understand, but I myself no longer know what I have been reading. These are phenomena of divided attention which are of particular importance here" (pp. 75-76).

Freud thus attributed to attention an ability to forge links between different components of the sensory data constitutive of the word, distancing himself from localizationist theories of aphasia. In this linking function of attention, one can see the precursor of what would later come to be called "suspended attention" of the analyst and its crucial characteristic of non-selectivity, which is an important component of technique.

It was in the Project for a Scientific Psychology (1950c [1895]) that Freud proposed an actual theory of attention. Having distinguished between Y neurons sensitive to quantities of excitation and x neurons sensitive to qualities of excitation, he defined attention as a hypercathexis of the indications of quality that are perceived by the x neurons but as hypercathected by an energy issuing from the Y neurons. He made attention capable of expectation in that it was responsible for apprehending indications of quality from perception and thus anticipating cathexis by wishes.

Thus Freud distinguished "ordinary thought," directed toward the search for an object of satisfaction, and "observing thought" (1950c [1895], p. 363) which is turned more towards the internal world than the external and is supported by the function of attention. According to him, attention has one valence directed toward the interior, or the intrapsychic world, and it is this centripetal attention that allows neuronal facilitations that would be impossible with only centrifugal attention.

In The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a), he assigned attention the task of transmitting psychic material from the preconscious system to the conscious system, thus giving a certain primacy to continuous attention. In 1911, he specified the dynamic character of attention in his article, "Formulations on the Two Principles of Mental Functioning": "A special function was instituted which had periodically to search the external world in order that its data might be familiar already if an urgent internal need should arisethe function of attention. Its activity meets the sense-impressions half way, instead of awaiting their appearance" (1911b, p. 220). He was here underscoring the active aspect of the function of attention.

Freud returned to the question of attention yet again in "Recommendations to Physicians Practising Psycho-Analysis" (1912e), where he defined "evenly-suspended attention" as the desirable attitude of the analyst during the session. This attitude, which certainly puts less strain on the analyst, is justified mainly on the grounds that non-selectivity toward clinical material, as the counterpart for the analyst of the rule of free association for the patient, promotes a more direct contact between the ideational worlds of the two participants.

Wilfred Bion extended the concept of attention beyond sensory reality and applied it to psychic reality, a direction that Freud had indicated in An Outline of Psycho-Analysis. This theme is central to Bion's book Attention and Interpretation (1970), in which he described attention as the matrix within which the diverse elements of mental life come to be united and combined. Thus the Bionian perspective is highly dynamic.

Moreover, on the interpersonal level, Bion described the "mother's capacity for reverie" (Bion, 1967, p. 116), referring to the "function" by which, thanks to her processes of attention, capacity, and transformation, the mother helps the child to render his or her environment thinkable so that the child will be progressively able to integrate it into its own "apparatus for dealing with thoughts" (Bion, 1962, p. 83). What is fundamentally involved is a work of detoxification that makes it possible for the child to metabolize (on the digestive model of the psyche) protopsychic materials that are at first unusable by the child alone.

Maternal attention represents a first step towards and an essential precondition for the work of transformation that Bion referred to as equally important to his experimental paradigm, which was that of analytic treatment, and especially the treatment of psychotic adults. He recommended that analysts be without "memory and desire" (1970, p. 31), which is certainly not to be taken literally, but aims to create in the analyst a particular state of attention and perhaps, according to Houzel, an unconscious state of attention.

The most recent work in the field of early childhood analysis, especially that of the post-Kleinians, places more and more emphasis on attention as the cornerstone of the therapeutic process.

Bernard Golse

See also: Active imagination (analytical psychology); Cathexis; Conscious processes; Dismantling; Framework of the psychoanalytic treatment; Free association; Evenly-suspended attention; Fundamental rule; Grid; Hypercathexis; Infant observation (therapeutic); Learning from Experience ; Perception-consciousness (Pcpt.-Cs.); "Project for a Scientific Psychology, A"; Psychoanalytic treatment; "Recommendations to Physicians Practising Psycho-Analysis"; Sudden involuntary idea; Thought-thinking apparatus.


Bion, Wilfred R. (1970). Attention and interpretation. London: Tavistock Publications.

. (1962). Learning from experience. London: Tavistock Publications.

. (1967). Second thoughts. New York: Aronson.

Freud, Sigmund. (1911b). Formulations on the two principles of mental functioning. SE, 12: 213-226.

. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams. SE, 4-5.

. (1891b). On aphasia: A critical study. (E. Stengel, Trans.). New York: International Universities Press, 1953.

. (1912e). Recommendations to physicians practising psycho-analysis. SE, 12: 109-120.

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Selective concentration or focus on a particular stimulus.

Attention describes the focusing of perceptive awareness on a particular stimulus or set of stimuli that results in the relative exclusion of other stimuli and is often accompanied by an increase in the readiness to receive and to respond to the stimulus or set of stimuli involved. A state of attention may be produced initially in many ways, including as a conscious, intentional decision, as a normal function of social interaction, or as a reaction to an unexpected event. In any case, attention is a fundamental component of learning. There is evidence that very young human infants have an innate ability and inclination to attend to, however briefly, particular instances of auditory or visual stimulation. Children often demonstrate the effects of their attention in the form of apparent misperceptions. For example, the relative size of objects near the center of a child's visual stimulus field is regularly overestimated by the child. In human adults, generally, attention seems to be directly related to the novelty, incongruity, complexity, or personal significance of the situation. As situations become increasingly familiar or similar to situations previously experienced by an individual, the actions of that individual become increasingly routine, and the individual becomes less attentive. There are distinct and measurable neurological and physiological, bioelectric and biochemical aspects and correlates of attention, and the capacity to achieve or to maintain a state of attention may be limited by a number of mental or physical dysfunctions.

In psychology, the term "attention span" is used technically and specifically to mean the number of separate stimulus elements, or the amount of stimulus material, that can be perceived and remembered after a brief presentation. In popular usage, the term attention span is used to mean the amount of time that can be continuously spent in a state of attention.

Further Reading

Hans, James. The Mysteries of Attention. Albany: SUNY Press, 1993.

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at·ten·tion / əˈtenshən/ • n. 1. notice taken of someone or something; the regarding of someone or something as interesting or important. you've never paid that much attention to her opinions. ∎  the mental faculty of considering or taking notice of someone or something: he turned his attention to the educational system. 2. the action of dealing with or taking special care of someone or something: the business needed her attention. ∎  (attentions) a person's interest in someone, esp. when unwelcome or regarded as excessive: his aim was to avoid the attentions of the newspapers. ∎  (attentions) a person's actions intended to express interest of a sexual or romantic nature in someone, sometimes when unwelcome: she felt flattered by his attentions. 3. Mil. a position assumed by a soldier, standing very straight with the heels together and the arms straight down the sides of the body: the squadron stood to attention midshipmen standing at attention. ∎  [as interj.] an order to assume such a position. DERIVATIVES: at·ten·tion·al / -shənl/ adj.

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What Parts of the Brain Are Involved in Paying Attention?

Do Television and Video Games Affect Attention?


Attention is the mental process in which a person concentrates awareness on a specific object, issue, or activity and excludes other potential stimuli* from the environment. While the human brain has amazing capabilities for processing information, it also has limited capacity. A person cannot attend to all the information being received through the five senses (sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch) at any one time.

* stimuli
(STIM-yoo-lie) are things in the environment that excite a person to function, become active, or respond. The singular form is stimulus.


for searching the Internet and other reference sources

Attention deficit disorder (ADD)




What Parts of the Brain Are Involved in Paying Attention?

Neuroscientists (nor-o-SY-in-tists), or scientists who study the brain and nervous system, believe that attention is largely a function of the brains reticular activating (re-TIK-yoo-lur AK-ti-vay-ting) system, or RAS. This system includes a group of nerve fibers located in several parts of the brain, including the thalamus*, hypothalamus*, brain stem*, and cerebral cortex*. The RAS seems to account for the shifts in peoples level of involvement with their surroundings, which ranges anywhere from full attention to sleep. When the system is fully operating, a person is awake, alert, and attentive; this would be the case when a person is listening to an interesting lecture or taking an important test. When the RAS is less active, a person is tired or inattentive. The highway signs urging drivers to Stay Awake - Take a Break actually are related to the RAS; it is much more difficult for people to pay attention when they are tired.

* thalamus
(THAL-uh-mus) refers to a pair of large egg-shaped areas located in the middle of the brain just under the cerebral cortex. The plural form is thalami.
* hypothalamus
(hy-po-THALuh-mus ) is a brain structure located deep within the brain that regulates automatic body functions such as heart rate, blood pressure, temperature, respiration, and the release of hormones.
* brain stem
connects the brain to the spinal cord. Twelve pairs of nerves branch off the brain stem and connect to the eyes, ears, nose, face, neck, and breathing and swallowing muscles. The brain stem is involved in motor functions, reflexes, and sensing.
* cerebral cortex
(suh-REE-brul KOR-teks) is the part of the brain that controls functions such as conscious thought, listening, and speaking.

Within the RAS, the thalamus appears to play a key role in the moment-to-moment changes in the focus of attention. The thalami and cerebral cortex cooperate to register any incoming sensory signals, evaluate their contents, and mobilize brain resources in response to the demands made. Put simply, the thalami receive the messages that come through a persons senses and then relay the information to the proper receiving areas in the brain.

Chemical messengers known as neurotransmitters (nor-o-TRANZmit-erz) are also involved in the process of paying attention. In fact, all of the systems within the brain depend on chemicals that pass electrical signals from nerve cell to nerve cell. A test known as electroencephalography (e-LEK-tro-en-sef-uh-LAH-gru-fee), or EEG, can measure electrical signals within the brain. Two transmitter substances, noradrenaline (nor-uh-DREN-uh-lin) and dopamine (DOH-puh-meen), play important roles in helping people stay alert and attentive. The medicine methylphenidate (meth-il-FEN-ih-date; better known by its brand name, Ritalin®) is used to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and is thought to work by regulating the levels of key neurotransmitters in the brain, particularly dopamine. After taking the medicine, people who have difficulty focusing their attention are better able to concentrate on a task.

This is an overly simplified explanation of a complex process. There are other parts of the brain and nervous system that play a role in the process of paying attention. For example, a group of structures in the middle of the brain compose the limbic (LIM-bik) system, which is linked

Understanding Attention: Twentieth-Century Milestones

During the twentieth century, researchers developed a better understanding of what it really means to pay attention. A few key developments include:

  • 1920s: A Russian scientist named Ivan Petrovich Pavlov observed some of the physical signs of attention in dogs and other animals, which came to be known as the orienting response. These signs included pricked-up ears, turning the head toward the stimulus, increased muscle tension, and other changes in the body. In his most famous experiment, Pavlov found that he could train dogs to associate the ringing of a bell with the delivery of food. Pavlovs discovery gave rise to a school of psychology known as behaviorism, which studies how behavior is caused by the brains responses to external factors.
  • 1950s: The theory of the bottleneck is used to describe the process of attention. Scientists theorize that the many signals entering the central nervous system are placed in temporary storage and then are analyzed for their importance. In this way, a person can filter out what needs attention and only allow those signals to pass through for further processing in the brain.
  • 1990s: The development of new scanning technologies such as positron emission tomography (POZ-ih-tron e-MISH-un tuhMOG-ruh-fee) (PET scan) and magnetic resonance imaging (mag-NE-tik REZ-uh-nans I-muh-jing) (MRI) allows researchers to watch the brain in action. For example, researchers at Duke University in North Carolina recently used a MRI scanner to take 480 snapshots per minute of the brain activity of several volunteers as they watched a computer-controlled television screen. The scans showed how areas of activity in the brain shift as the person shifts attention. Many other studies have used this technology to determine how different areas of the brain are involved in different activities.

to various emotions and feelings such as fear, pleasure, and sadness. These structures are thought to play some role in how people decide to focus their attention. For example, when a student sits at a desk to read a school textbook, a variety of complex emotions may play a role in her decision to focus on the text: pleasure in the subject matter, fear of doing poorly on the next test, desire to perform well during class discussion, and so forth. To focus in on the task at hand, she must tune out all other stimuli, such as the other books scattered around the room, the sound of children playing outside, the color of the desk pad, and the ticking of the clock. Attention is not always under a persons control, however. If someone comes bursting into the room or turns on a stereo at full volume, the students attention would likely be drawn away from the book. Thus, attention may be captured by an unexpected event rather than voluntarily directed toward it.

Do Television and Video Games Affect Attention?

Some experts have argued that watching too many fast-paced television programs and video games may actually increase the likelihood of attention problems. If the brain becomes accustomed to constant stimulation by rapidly changing visual effects, it may easily become impatient with tasks that require closer attention. Television also makes fewer demands on attention than do reading, studying, or playing a game. Without enough of these more challenging activities, the brain may get out of shape.

However, the reverse may be true. Children and adults with limited attention resources may be attracted to intense stimulation and therefore may be captured by television or video games. Less intense activities may not hold the focus of individuals with attention deficits. More research is needed to better understand this issue.

See also

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

Brain Chemistry (Neurochemistry)



Neuroscience for Kids is an extensive and entertaining website maintained by Research Associate Professor Eric Chudler at the University of Washington, Seattle. It features easy-to-understand information on a range of topics related to the brain and nervous system, including attention. from the Nemours Foundation posts information about attention deficit disorders and other issues concerning learning.

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