Imagine suffering through a 2pm class on a sweltering day in early June. Summer’s almost arrived, and it’s hard not to let your mind wander away from the dull information emanating from the front of the classroom. Your teacher catches you gazing out the window, and yells, “Pay attention!”
You know that your teacher wants you to stop daydreaming. But beyond that, what does “pay attention” really mean? What is attention? Is it something real and distinct at all, or is it just a fancy way to say “doing what you’re supposed to be doing”?
“…attention is the tool that our brains use to select psychological information; what is then done with the selected information is a matter for the other tools at our brain’s disposal.”
Many researchers have pondered those same questions, fueling an explosion of influential theories and energetic debates that permeate many areas of cognitive neuroscience. In his foundational treatise Principles of Psychology, William James declared: “Every one knows what attention is. It is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought”.
James articulated a basic theory of attention as a distinct cognitive function, characterized by its selectivity of certain information to the exclusion of other information, its limited capacity, and its ability to operate on a range of information, from sensations to thoughts and feelings. In other words, to paraphrase James, attention is the tool that our brains use to select psychological information; what is then done with the selected information is a matter for the other tools at our brain’s disposal.
Over many years, James’s early insights guided researchers to develop an influential theory of attention known as the biased competition model. According to this model, numerous sensory or cognitive representations are active in the brain at any given time, but the brain’s computational resources allow only a limited number of representations to proceed through stages of processing. Thus, the various representations are always competing against each other for access to neural resources. In this competitive environment, attention is a mechanism that can bias selected representations for more elaborated processing.
For example, if you are searching for your phone on a messy desk, your brain is absorbing more visual information than it can meaningfully interpret. In one moment it might contain all the visual information of the cluttered scene on your desk, but it can’t use that raw information by itself to interpret what the contents of the scene are, or whether they fulfill your goal of locating the phone. So your attention moves through the scene, enabling the processing of individual components one-by-one – once an individual component gets an attentional boost, it will have enough representational strength in the brain to extend to object recognition stages! In this way, your attention will help you determine whether each item on your desk is a phone or something else.
Attention is able to operate on information from each of our senses, but visual attention is the most commonly studied form of attention. The widespread popularity of visual attention research is due in large part to the success of feature integration theory, developed by Anne Treisman. Treisman proposed that one of the main functions of attention is to bind visual features – such as color, texture, shape, orientation, and direction of motion – together into coherent objects.
The more scientists reveal the significance of attention as a fundamental cognitive function, the more questions they unleash. Some of the most intriguing questions at the forefront of attention research target the interaction between attention and memory, the relationship between attention and conscious perception, and how the decline of attentional capacity in neurodegenerative disease affects cognition and behavior.
That’s plenty to think about, the next time some one tells you to “pay attention.”
Image by Sean Noah.
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