Attention (PSYC1011)

Attention is the cognitive process of selectively concentrating on one aspect of the environment while ignoring other things. Attention has also been referred to as the allocation of processing resources. It is 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.

Distributing Attention: Dichotic Listening

Dichotic listening is when a different sound stream is played into each ear and the person is told to only focus on one ear (the right ear understands linguistic content better, so presumably this has a bias) and report what they heard afterwards. Usually the attentional system is selecting which input to process, and the person won't even have heard the content to the unattended ear.

Colin Cherry first modelled this with the Cocktail Party Problem in 1953; how do we decide/select what is important enough to pay attention to. Also known as "focussed" or "divided" attention.

Word Tests

When told to listen to the right and ignore the left, when told to tap a button when they hear "green", the average response is 87% accuracy when played to the right ear, and 8% when played to the left ear.

Early-Selection vs Late-Selection

It's unresolved at what point along the processing information gets discarded. We know that processing would go as:

  • We first register sensory stimulus (attend to physical characteristics of sound)
  • Then comes identifying the semantic description (deciding what it means)
  • And then selecting a response/forming a memory/active awareness (processing the information)

We don't know if it's early selection (processing of the ignored source is shut down after it's been registered) or late selection (all noise is semantically processed - the content in both ears is analyzed semantically, but the words in the unattended ear cannot access consciousness). The late selection model explains our ability to pick out salient information (e.g. our name) from background noise.

Two Types of Attention

We can split attention into two categories; intentional and unintentional.

Endogenous (internal/intentional)

Endogenous attention is known as Controlled Attention; deliberate actions. E.g:

  • mindful breathing
  • deliberate listening
  • searching for keys

Exogenous (captured/unintentional)

Exogenous attention is when our attention is unwittingly captured. E.g.:

  • we hear our name
  • something shiny appears
  • loud bangs

Controlled vs Automatic Responses

Essentially controlled responses are considered conscious ones, as opposed to an automatic second-nature response.

E.g. Controlled:

  • Learning to drive/ride a bike/fly/etc
  • Talking in a loud room
  • Solving mathematical problems

E.g. Automatic:

  • Riding a bike
  • Changing gears
  • Signing your name

We can do two things at once if only one is controlled - we can't study and watch TV, but we can talk whilst cycling. Automatic processes may be in conflict with our goals - things that control behaviour in an undesirable way they must be automatic.

From the colour test (name the text colour, not the word) we can deduce that word meanings are automatically retrieved (and quickly) and that then conflicts with our controlled purposeful extraction of the colour.

Tiredness + Boredom

When we're tired we have a reduced total of attentional resources, making it harder for us to focus. Adrenalin increases our attentional resources - so exercise and getting enough sleep.