The Nature of Attention and Consciousness

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


More directly concerned with awareness – it includes both the feeling of awareness and the content of awareness, some of which may be under the focus of attention.

What is Attention?

It is more than just sensation and perception Attention and arousal are not synonymous There can be intentional deficits in perfectly awake individuals Extreme arousal (as in pain or terror) may impair the flexibility of attention.


Types of Attention

Alertness and arousal – the basic aspects of attention that enable a person to extract information from the environment or to select a particular response (coma → full alertness)

Vigilance (sustained attention) – the ability to sustain alertness (monitor an even stimulus) continuously Selective attention – ability to scan events/stimuli and pick out the ones that are relevant (difficult to monitor two events in the same modality)

The Nature of Attention and Consciousness

Relationship between attention and consciousness

Attention + Consciousness

No attention + No Consciousness

Attention + No Consciousness

No attention + Consciousness

The Nature of Attention and Consciousness

Preconscious Processing

Information that is available for cognitive processing but that currently lies outside of conscious awareness exists at the preconscious level of awareness.

Antony Marcel (1983)

Participants had to classify series of words into various categories (e.g. pine-plant)

Primes where words with two meanings such as palm followed by target word (tree or hand)

Task outline:

We try to remember something that is known to be stored in memory but that cannot quite be

Retrieved People who cannot come up with the word, but who thought they knew it, could identify the first letter, indicate the number of syllables, or approximate the world’s sounds.

Controlled Versus Automatic Processes

Controlled processes

Require intentional effort; full conscious awareness; consume many intentional resources; performed serially; relatively slow

Automatic Processes

Little or no intention or effort; occur outside of conscious awareness; do not require a lot of attention, performed by parallel processing; fast

Many tasks that start off as controlled processes eventually become automatic ones


The process by which a procedure changes from being highly conscious to being relatively automatic.

  1. Habituation


We become accustomed to a stimulus; we gradually notice it less and less (e.g. music and studying)


A change in a familiar stimulus prompts us to start noticing the Stimulus again Sensory adaptation Physiological phenomenon; not subject to conscious control; occurs directly in the sense organ, not in the brain.

Vigilance and Signal Detection

We vigilantly try to detect whether we did or did not sense a signal (a particular target stimulus of interest)


A person’s ability to attend to a field of stimulation over a prolonged period, during which the person seeks to detect the appearance of a particular target stimulus

Example – (Mackworth, 1948)

Participants were watching when a clock hand took a double step Substantial deterioration after half an hour of observation Vigilance can be increased with training.


Scan the environment for particular features whereas vigilance involves passively waiting for a signal stimulus to appear, search involves actively seeking out the target


Nontarget stimuli that divert our attention away from the target stimuli can cause false alarm.

Selective Attention

Stroop effect (Stroop, 1935)

Demonstrates the psychological difficulty in selectively attending to the color of the ink and trying to ignore the word that is printed with the ink of that color Since reading is an automatic process (not readily subject to your conscious control) you find it difficult intentionally to refrain from reading and instead to concentrate on identifying the color of the ink.

The cocktail party problem (Cherry, 1953)

The process of tracking one conversation in the face of the distraction of other conversations


Listening to two different messages and repeating back only one of the messages as soon as possible after you hear it Dichotic presentation listening to two different messages (presenting a different message to each ear) and attending to only one of them.

Selective Attention

Filter and Bottleneck Theories

Broadbent’s Model

We filter information right after it is registered at the sensory level

Moray’s Selective Filter Model

The selective filter blocks out most information at the sensory level, but some highly salient messages are so powerful that they burst through the filtering mechanism (e.g. your name)


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