Introduction (Psychology and Mental Health)
Attention usually refers to concentrating on a particular aspect of the external environment, although it is possible to attend to one’s own thoughts and other internal states. The flavor of the typical use of the term is captured in a statement by nineteenth century German physiologist Hermann von Helmholtz, who noted that an observer may be steadily gazing at a fixation mark, yet at the same time can concentrate attention on any given part of the visual field. The point in space to which one is directing one’s eyes and the point to which one is attending thus are not necessarily the same, and one does not have to move the eyes to shift visual attention.
Attention has been of interest for a long time. Helmholtz wrote about attention in 1850, in a book on physiological optics. William James, a pioneer in the study of psychology, devoted much space to attention in his book published in 1890 titled The Principles of Psychology. He noted that attention can be involuntary and effortless or else voluntary and effortful. According to James, attention allows people to perceive, conceive, distinguish, and remember better than they otherwise could. Edward Titchener, in his Lectures on the Elementary Psychology of Feeling and Attention (1908), reinforced this point by stating that attention determines what people are conscious of as well as the clarity of their conscious experience.
Other leading figures from...
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Attention Selection (Psychology and Mental Health)
How does a person select the things to which to attend? This question leads to a consideration of “early” (before meaning is analyzed) versus “late” selection. Donald Broadbent, in 1958, championed the view that selection is made early through a process analogous to filtering incoming information according to its sensory properties. For example, after a brief glimpse, a person can report the identity of items in the environment accurately if a cue indicating which items to report refers to their spatial location, but much less accurately if it refers to semantic properties (for example, asks for only the letters from a display of several letters and digits intermixed).
Other researchers, such as J. Anthony Deutsch and Diana Deutsch, have argued that people unconsciously analyze all incoming information for its meaning, although selection cannot be made on this basis as easily as on a sensory basis. Support for this process, termed late selection, is forthcoming in tasks such as naming the ink colors of printed letters. J. Ridley Stroop found that if the color of the letters from a word that is the name of a color is different from the ink color (for example, the word “blue” written in red ink), it takes much longer to name the ink color than if the combination of letters is meaningless (in the example, a row of red X’s). People cannot avoid reading the word, no matter how hard they try. Thus, word meaning...
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Visual, Sensory, and Spatial Attention (Psychology and Mental Health)
Attention is necessary because people do not have the capacity to be conscious of all aspects of their environment at once. Questions arise concerning the extent to which people can be conscious of more than one aspect simultaneously, and if so, of what aspects they can be simultaneously conscious. Because what is to be attended to can so easily be selected on the basis of its location, these questions often have been posed in relation to whether people can attend to nonadjacent areas simultaneously.
It is important first to point out that the observations of Helmholtz, James, and Titchener have been verified in sensitive laboratory experiments. Subjects gazing at the center of a computer screen were first given information about the spatial location on the screen of a target that would later appear away from fixation. The correct location usually was indicated, but sometimes an incorrect location was indicated. In comparison with instances when no location information was shown, detection of the target was aided by valid information but harmed by invalid information. If the target did not appear in the indicated location, however, detection was better when it appeared near the indicated location than when it appeared farther away. The edges of the attended area thus are vaguely rather than sharply defined. Yet can attention be split between nonadjacent locations? Most research has shown that this is...
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Use of Schemata (Psychology and Mental Health)
A person can direct attention on bases other than a spatial one. That is, even overlapping shapes can be selectively attended. Neisser has described a study in which a basketball game and a hand-slapping game were shown simultaneously in outline form in the same location on a television screen. Observers could attend to only one game and indicate each occurrence of some event (for example, a throw of the ball from one player to another) as well when both games were shown as when only the relevant one was shown alone. Further, observers were largely unaware of events occurring in the unattended game. People can attend to only one game when both are being shown on the basis of expectations inherent in the way they understand and mentally represent the game. These mental representations are called schemata. Through them, attention has its effects as an alerting and sustaining process whereby receptivity to certain information can be maintained over the short or long term. Finally, consistent with results on tasks involving attempts to split attention spatially, observers were unable to attend to both games at once (and thereby indicate when a point had been scored in either one).
One additional phenomenon involves what Colin Cherry referred to as the “cocktail party phenomenon.” The setting is a cocktail party or any gathering where people are engaged simultaneously in different conversations. A person can listen selectively...
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Practical Uses of Research (Psychology and Mental Health)
Understanding how attention operates makes possible the design of environments that make it easier for people to attend to important characteristics. For example, hunters often are cautioned to wear a piece of clothing colored “blaze orange.” A bright color is a simple feature that draws attention automatically. Another hunter’s attention will be drawn to the blaze orange, and focusing attention on the color will allow it to be conjoined with other simple features, such as shape. The second hunter thus will almost immediately be conscious of the hunter wearing the blaze orange as a hunter and will be unlikely to misperceive this hunter as game (in addition, the color of game is never blaze orange). The same principle is applied when emergency vehicles such as fire trucks are painted bright red or yellow.
Principles stemming from basic research on attention have been applied in the development of what is known as “heads-up” displays in aircraft such as helicopters. Typically, a pilot faces a windscreen through which the environment can be seen, with a cluster of instruments designating altitude, speed, and so on nearby. With this configuration, the pilot must look away from the windscreen and at the instruments to check them. As helicopters are capable of traveling at a high rate of speed and often are flown close to the earth and to objects into which they might crash, it is important that looking away...
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Shadowing (Psychology and Mental Health)
One popular laboratory task is to have listeners “shadow” material presented to them. In shadowing, the listener hears a series of words spoken at a normal conversational rate and tries to repeat aloud each word as it is heard. The task is difficult, and subjects must devote considerable attention to the shadowing. Often a listener is asked to shadow material played with a tape recorder to one ear while different material is played by another tape recorder to the other ear (earphones are used). Certain characteristics of the material not being shadowed can be varied. After the task, the listener can be asked a number of questions regarding what he or she was conscious of in the unshadowed message.
Consistent with Cherry’s cocktail party phenomenon, listeners are conscious of the presence of the unshadowed message and of whether there is an abrupt change of pitch (as in a change of voice from a man’s to a woman’s, or the introduction of a whistle). These global physical characteristics of the unshadowed message can be determined preattentively. Listeners are not conscious, however, of the contents or the language of the unshadowed message, of whether the language changed during the message, or even of whether speech or nonsense sounds were presented, unless a change of pitch occurred. Many variations of this experiment have been performed, and all have produced the same results: Consciousness of the unshadowed material is...
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Emergence of Attention Theories (Psychology and Mental Health)
The first complete theory of attention was not proposed until 1958, when Broadbent introduced his concept of attention as a filter that admitted only certain information, selected on the basis of sensory characteristics, into the limited-capacity system. This marked the continuation of interest in attention by researchers in England, beginning with Cherry in 1953. In 1963, the Deutschs proposed that all incoming information is analyzed to the level of meaning.
Many of the fundamental issues in attention have been recast somewhat, in the information-processing mode, beginning in the late 1960’s. For example, attention is described in terms of “selection,” “resources,” “features,” “input,” and so on. Whereas the emphasis had been on hearing, visual attention began to receive more emphasis. Many of the findings were like those on hearing, although factors such as color and brightness were considered.
Attention remains central to the study of consciousness and cognitive psychology. As Michael Posner noted in 1975, “Attention is not a single concept, but the name of a complex field of study.” Accordingly, questions about early versus late selection, automatic processing, and other issues in the control of attention have not yet been fully answered.
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Sources for Further Study (Psychology and Mental Health)
Gazzaniga, Michael S. The Cognitive Neurosciences. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004. This helpful reference charts new studies in complex cognition, showing the relationship between the physiology of the nervous system and the reality of the mind.
Gopher, Daniel, and Asher Koriat, eds. Attention and Performance XVII. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999. A collection of essays from a conference on attention, divided into sections covering the presentation and representation of information, cognitive regulation of acquisition and performance, consciousness and behavior, and special populations (aging and neurological disorders).
Humphreys, Glyn, John Duncan, and Anne Treisman, eds. Attention, Space, and Action: Studies in Cognitive Neuroscience. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. A volume of papers presented at two linked conferences, utilizing psychological, physiological, and theoretical advances in neuroscience to understand attention.
Johnston, William A., and Veronica J. Dark. “Selective Attention.” In Annual Review of Psychology 37. Stanford, Calif.: Annual Reviews, 1989. Provides a thorough and well-organized review of the research on selective attention. Outlines eleven phenomena associated with attention, and the degree to which each of a number of theories accounts for these phenomena.
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Attention (Encyclopedia of Psychology)
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...
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Attention (International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis)
The word "attention" comes from the Latin attention, itself derived from attendere, which means "to turn one's mind towards"o 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 ) 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 , 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 arisehe 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.
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.