What is Attention? It’s Definitions, History, Process, Types, etc

May I have your Attention please!!!

A large number of stimuli hit upon our sense organs simultaneously, but we do not notice all of them at the same time. Only a selected few of them are noticed. “paying attention” is concentrating—shutting out other activities or information to devote more mental resources to the object on which you want to focus.

History of Attention 

—William James’s description of Attention,-

  • Taking possession by the mind,
  • Focalization, concentration, of consciousness are of its essence.
  • It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others.

Definitions of Attention 

Attention is a concentration of mental activity.

Attention allows our cognitive processes to take in selected aspect of our environment. i.e. limiting information.(Palmer, 1999)

Attention is the means by which we actively process a limited amount of information from the enormous amount of information available through our senses, our stored memories, and our other cognitive processes’.  (De Weerd, 2003a; Rao, 2003).

Ross (1951) has defined it as “the process of getting an object or thought clearly before the mind”.

William James defined “attention is focusing of consciousness on a particular object.




Process / Nature of Attention 

The process through which certain stimuli are selected from a group of others is generally referred to as attention. Besides selection, attention also refers to several other properties like alertness, concentration, and search.

  • Alertness refers to an individual’s readiness to deal with stimuli that appear before her/him. For Example, Alertness at starting point of race.
  • Concentration refers to focusing of awareness on certain specific objects while excluding others for the moment. For example- Teachers voice rather than other noises.
  • In Search an observer looks for some specified subset of objects among a set of objects. For example we search for  a friend.

Attention in this sense refers to “effort allocation”. 

Attention has a focus as well as a fringe. Focus or Focal point of attention is When the field of awareness is centered on a particular object or event. On the contrary, Fringe is when the objects or events are away from the center of awareness and one is only vaguely aware of them.



Classification / Types of attention

  1. Selective Attention 
  2. Sustained Attention
  3. Divided Attention

1. Selective Attention 

Our brain selectively focus on particular stimuli and block out other stimuli consciously. It is Process oriented view.

Factors Affecting Selective AttentionExternal factors are related to the features of stimuli- constant, the size, intensity, motion, etc . Large, bright, and moving stimuli easily catch our attention.  Internal factors- Motivational-> Biological & Social needs; Cognitive factors include factors like interest, attitude, and preparatory set.

Theories of Selective Attention – Filter theory, Filter-attenuation theory, Multimode theory, etc.

2. Sustained Attention or Vigilance

Sustained attention is concerned with concentration. It refers to our ability to maintain attention on an object or event for longer durations. It is also known as “vigilance”. for example – Air traffic controllers, radar readers etc

Factors affecting Sustained Attention–  Sensory modality, Clarity of stimuli (long lasting stimuli facilitate sustained attention and result in better performance), Temporal uncertainty (When stimuli appear at regular intervals of time they are attended better than when they appear at irregular intervals), Spatial uncertainty (Stimuli that appear at a fixed place are readily attended, whereas those that appear at random locations are difficult to attend)

3. Divided Attention 

We carefully allocate our available attentional resources to coordinate our performance of more than one task at a time (ability of Multi tasking), as when we are listening to teacher  and engaged in a WhatsApp chat at the same time.




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