Attention, what is it and how do we pay it?

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We all should know what attention is; after all we ‘pay’ it all of the time to our parents, children, projects, work and hobbies.  We use attention constantly, sometimes it comes easily and sometimes it is hard to maintain.  However, defining attention psychologically is harder than it may appear at the surface.  Are we talking about visual or auditory attention?  Are the systems for these? What do we class as attention? And where does attention begin and end?  Psychologists started investigating these questions a while ago.  In the 1890’s William James (The Principles of Psychology) became interested in attentional systems and wrote this paragraph, which is still quoted today:

Everyone 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. Focalization, concentration, of consciousness are of its essence. It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state which in French is called distraction, and Zerstreutheit in German.

Today, attention is often split into three separate processes or areas. These are roughly:

  1. Attention or awareness of surroundings that allows for the perception of a stimulus – i.e. a movement, colour, piece of text (Alerting/ Vigilance)
  2. The conscious or unconscious orientation of attention to the source of the stimulus (Orienting/ Selective Attention)
  3. The regulation of thoughts and behaviour in relation to a stimulus – this is usually sustained over a period of time (Concentration/ Sustained Attention/ Executive Attention)

Please be aware that these are rough categories, not scientifically proven ones. Arguments for the boundaries of each term or process are still on going. However, these are sufficient for my explanation!  These attentional processes are thought to be controlled in two different ways:

  • Consciously:  This is where you, as an individual, make a decision and conscious effort to pay attention to a particular thing, for example that marking that really needs to be done for tomorrow.  It does not have to be boring though, we all choose to pay attention to things we enjoy as well. This is known as ‘top-down’ attention, and is part of our executive control system (i.e. that way in which we consciously control and manipulate ourselves and our environment)
  • Unconsciously:  This is where you get ‘distracted’ from the conversation you were having when someone walks past with the most amazing looking ice cream… (Yes, it’s been sunny in the UK recently!)  This is also known as ‘stimulus driven’ attention.  Your attention has been caught and focused on to a stimulus that was not of your conscious choosing.  Often this is also related back to an evolved survival skill; you need to see or hear the danger before it is too late, even if you are not looking for it.  This is known as ‘bottom-up’ or ‘stimulus-driven’ attention.

The five points made above form the basis for the neuropsychological investigation into attention and many related areas (there is some evidence to say it is highly related to working memory); it is an area that is still being very much explored by many scientists in many ways. Personally, I wish to focus in both my own work and on this blog, on how these systems of attention affect our interaction in and with the educational world and if it is possible to train these systems in order to help children and adults who struggle.

Posner has been at the forefront of attentional research for many years, here is an early paper:

For anyone interested in either mindfulness or attention training: (I will cover both of these at some point)

Wikipedia: this article is not too crammed full of technical words and covers some areas of research and interest that I have not.


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