Notes can be found as interactive webpage at

4: Attention

Physiological/neurological measures of attention #

  • Attention: ability to focus on one thing and ignore others
    • Attention is required for information to be encoded
    • Novel stimuli capture attention – something that’s different
      • Can be something loud, bright, salient or even sudden sound of silence
  • Physiological/neurological measures of attention
    • Neurological correlates (ERP and PET studies)
      • Activation of anterior and posterior attentional networks (frontal lobe)
    • Orienting response
      • Increase in heart rate and galvanic skin response

  • Pupil dilation
    • Pupil dilation reflects attentional effort – pupils expand when people deep in thought
    • If you are shown picture of someone you are romantically attracted to, your pupils dilate
    • We are also more attracted to pictures of people with expanded pupils
      • In marketing/advertising, pupils are enlarged in models
      • In 19C, ladies used to put belladonna in their eyes
  • Eye movement changes
    • Eyes tend to move toward objects of attention (even auditory attention)
    • A number of newly developed therapies focus specifically on maintaining eye contact as a way of enhancing attunement and detecting when a person is dissociating (e.g., in treatment of PTSD and dissociative disorders)
    • EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) for treatment of trauma
      • Activation of opposite hemispheres of the brain

Selective attention #

  • Selective attention: focus of conscious awareness on a particular stimulus

Dichotic Listening Task: Filter Model of Attention #

  • Donald Broadbent formulated one of the first information-processing models in psychology (1958); based on dichotic listening experiments (shadowing task):
    • Participants are instructed to repeat message played in one ear while ignoring message played in other ear
    • Participants are very good at filtering out irrelevant information: they fail to notice even changes in language in the unattended ear or words that have been repeated dozens of times
    • However, they are usually able to pick out the gender of the speaker, words like “Fire,” and their own name (“cocktail party effect”)

    • In general, people tend to consciously attend to one source of information and ignore other sources, but people vary in degree to which they focus attention and ignore distractions
  • Results of dichotic listening experiments supports filter model of attention: everything is picked up on some level, but at any given moment, we focus our awareness on only a limited aspect of all that we are experiencing
    • Broadbent proposed a flowchart model of selective attention to explain these results

      This type of flowchart model has become a standard way for cognitive scientists to describe and explain different aspects of cognition

    • Implications: We can understand how a cognitive system as a whole works by understanding how information flows through the system
  • Stimuli that we do not notice can affect us
    • Participants were unable to recognize simple, novel tunes that had been played in unattended ear, but when asked to rate how much they liked different tunes, they preferred the ones previously played
  • On the other hand, research suggests that we consciously take in far less information than we think, even about objects that fall within the beam of our attentional spotlight

Change blindness experiment (Simons & Levin, 1998) #

  • Experimenter stopped people on a college campus and asked them for directions
  • During the conversation, two confederates walked between them carrying a large door
  • In the few seconds in which the first experimenter was obscured, another experimenter took his place and continued the conversation
  • Only half the participants noticed the change – even when specifically asked about it
  • Implications
    • Relatively dramatic changes can go undetected
    • Due to attempt to achieve object constancy in spite of changes in sensory input (e.g., shadows, occlusion)

Divided Attention #

  • Divided Attention: Performance suffers when people have to attend to different stimuli at the same time; however, performance can improve with practice on some tasks, especially if one or both of the tasks are easy or well-learned.
    • Experienced drivers can converse with passengers while driving
    • With practice, people can learn to read while taking dictation or categorizing words (after several months of practice)
    • These feats of divided attention are possible because with practice, actions become automatic – they no longer require much attention
  • However, it is virtually impossible to perform two tasks that require deep cognitive processing at the same time
    • Talking on cell phone (even hands-free) increases risk of accident 4 times
    • Texting increases risk 23 times (!) (McEvoy, Stevenson, McCartt et al., 2005; Olson, Hanowski, Hickman et al., 2009)
  • Also, interestingly, research has also indicated that those who think they are best at multi-tasking are actually the ones who show the most severe impairments when multitasking! (Sambonmatsu, Strayer, Medeiros-Ward et al, 2013)
  • Internet use in class
    • Study conducted at Michigan State University (Ravizza, Uitvlugt, & Fenn, 2017) found that, for every 100 minutes in class, students spent
    • 40 minutes on non-academic website, mostly social media
    • 5 minutes on websites that related to course material
    • Increased non-academic internet usage in class had a negative correlation with final exam scores

Automaticity: advantages and disadvantages #

Stroop task #

  • Identification of color is slower in (c) because reading of word is automatic
  • People with phobic disorders have difficulty identifying ink color of words related to feared objects
  • Those with eating disorders take longer to report words related to body shape
  • Those who show an attentional bias toward suicide-related words are more likely to make a suicide attempt within the following 6 months (Cha, Najmi, Park et al., 2010)

Evan Longoria’s catch #

  • What are some advantages to automatic processing?
    • Efficiency, multitasking, allows us to pay attention to higher levels of processing (you don’t think about the letters you type, rather, the content of what you’re trying to convey)
  • What are some potential drawbacks?

Theories of attention #

Bottleneck theory #

  • Quantity of information to which we can pay attention is limited
  • Not widely supported by research
    • You can multitask in many ways

Automatic vs. controlled processing #

  • Automatic processing
    • Easy or well-practiced tasks
    • Processing is parallel and involuntary
    • i.e scanning list of student names for your own name
  • Controlled processing
    • Difficult or unfamiliar task
    • Processing is serial
    • i.e scanning list of student names for three unfamiliar names
  • Visual search study: automatic processing occurs only when target and irrelevant items belong to different sets
    • Find the two:

Feature-integration theory #

  • Distributed attention (a)
    • Can be used to register single features automatically (searching for blue X among red X’s and O’s or searching for feature present)
    • Automatic, parallel processing
  • Focused attention (b)
    • Used to search for combinations of features and for a feature that is missing (searching for blue X among red X’s, red O’s and blue O’s or searching for feature missing)
    • Controlled, serial processing
  • E.x. is it easier to find the slanted green line in (a) or (b)?

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder #

  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: difficulty sustaining attention, often fails to pay close attention to details on tasks, easily distracted by extraneous stimuli, fidgets and squirms constantly, always “on the go,” often interrupts others in conversations and games
    • Timing issue; subjects feel like they need to get their idea out or it will disappear
  • Treatment:
    • Medications: Ritalin and other stimulants
      • Supposed to attempt psychotherapy but that isn’t the case nowadays (you get much better results)
      • Idea is that people with ADHD are constantly under-aroused, that’s why they fidget, so stimmys artificially bring them to a normal baseline
    • Parenting skills training classes – parents taught to support/ignore certain behaviors
    • Behavioral therapy: focusing on organization, scheduling, etc.
    • Alternative therapies (e.g., biofeedback training)
    • Research has indicated that the more kids with ADHD wiggle and fidget, the better they do on cognitive tests (Sarver, Rapport, Kofler et al., 2015)

Biofeedback #

  • Biofeedback: form of operant conditioning in which person is trained to bring autonomic processes under conscious control
    • A signal, such as a tone or light, is made to come on whenever a certain desirable physiological change occurs
    • Person is instructed to try to keep the signal on for increasing periods of time
    • Technique has been successfully used to teach people to reduce blood pressure, produce more regular heartbeats, decrease incidence of headaches and increase attention

  • Neurofeedback is now also being used to treat ADHD and chronic pain
    • fMRI neurofeedback for ADHD increases activation in the right inferior frontal cortex and is associated with clinical symptom improvement (Rubia, Criaud, Wulff, et al., 2019)

    Reinforcement can be used to teach people to regulate many physiological responses that they are normally not aware of

TV #

  • Connection between ADHD and TV viewing/video games
    • Many parents say, “My son can’t possibly have ADHD because he can sit for hours concentrating on a video game, so there is clearly nothing wrong with his attention span.”
    • In fact, a child’s ability to stay focused on a screen, though not anywhere else, is actually characteristic of ADHD
    • Not clear though whether fascination with the screen may be a cause or an effect of attention problems - or both
  • Evidence that TV watching may increase attention problems:
    • Study found that television shows impaired children’s executive functioning, particularly fantastical shows (Lillard, Drell, Richey et al., 2015)
      • Probably due in large to habitual reliance on bottom-up processing, that is, attention-grabbing external stimuli
    • Herbert Krugman found that
      • In less than one minute of television viewing, person’s brainwaves switches from beta waves to primarily alpha waves (lower arousal state associated with ADHD)
      • When person stops watching television and begins reading a magazine, the brainwaves revert to beta waves
      • When watching TV, all the information is spoon-fed to you. When you read, you are forced to use your imagination to interpret the media
  • Recent study published in JAMA Pediatrics found that after controlling for age, gender and income, 3-5 year old children with higher use of screen-based media
    • Had lower measures of structural integrity and myelination in neurons
    • Scored lower on cognitive tests (Hutton, Dudley, Horowitz-Kraus et al., 2020)

Extra: American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations:

  • Children under 18 months should avert their eyes from TV and screen media at all times
  • For children 2 to 5, screen time should be limited to no more than 1 hour per day with the parent present