How Psychologists Define Attention

Attention focused on a smart phone
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Attention is a concept studied in cognitive psychology that refers to how we actively process specific information in our environment. As you are reading this, there are numerous sights, sounds, and sensations going on around you—the pressure of your feet against the floor, the sight of the street out of a nearby window, the soft warmth of your shirt, the memory of a conversation you had earlier with a friend.

All of these sights, sounds, and sensations vie for our attention, but it turns out that our attentional resources are not limitless. How do we manage to experience all of these sensations and still focus on just one element of our environment? How do we effectively manage the resources we have available in order to make sense of the world around us?

According to eminent psychologist and philosopher William James, attention "is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what may seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. …It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others."—"The Principles of Psychology," 1890

Understanding Attention

Think of attention as a highlighter. As you read through a section of text in a book, the highlighted section stands out, causing you to focus your interest in that area. But attention is not just about centering your focus on one particular thing; it also involves ignoring a great deal of competing for information and stimuli.

Attention allows you to "tune out" information, sensations, and perceptions that are not relevant at the moment and instead focus your energy on the information that's important.​ Not only does our attentional system allow us to focus on something specific in our environment while tuning out irrelevant details, but it also affects our perception of the stimuli surrounding us.

In some cases, our attention might be focused on a particular thing, causing us to ignore other things. In some instances, focusing our attention on a primary target might result in not perceiving the second target at all.

In other words, by focusing our attention on something in the environment, we sometimes miss other things that are right in front of us. You can probably immediately think of a situation where you were so focused on a task that you neglected to notice someone walking in the room or talking to you. Since your attentional resources were so focused on one thing, you neglected something else.

Key Points About Attention

In order to understand how attention works and how it affects your perception and experience of the world, it's essential to remember a few important points about how attention works. Here are three aspects of attention.


There has been a tremendous amount of research looking at exactly how many things we can attend to and for how long. Key variables that impact our ability to stay on task include how interested we are in the stimulus and how many distractors we experience and attention is limited in terms of both capacity and duration.

The illusion that attention is limitless has led many people to practice multitasking. Research published in 2018 has pointed out how multitasking seldom works well because our attention is, in reality, limited.


Since attention is a limited resource, we have to be selective about what we decide to focus on. Not only must we focus our attention on a specific item in our environment, but we must also filter out an enormous number of other items. We must be selective in what we attend to, a process that often occurs so quickly that we don't even notice that we have ignored certain stimuli in favor of others.

Part of the Cognitive System

Attention is a basic component of our biology, present even at birth. Our orienting reflexes help us determine which events in our environment need to be attended to, a process that aids in our ability to survive.

Newborns attend to environmental stimuli such as loud noises. A touch against the cheek triggers the rooting reflex, causing the infant to turn his or her head to nurse and receive nourishment.

These orienting reflexes continue to benefit us throughout life. The honk of a horn might alert us about an oncoming car. The blaring noise of a smoke alarm might warn you that the casserole you put in the oven is burning. All of these stimuli grab our attention and inspire us to respond to our environment.

Attention Research

For the most part, our ability to focus our attention on one thing while blocking out competing distractors seems automatic. Yet the ability of people to selectively focus their attention on a specific subject while dismissing others is very complex.

Looking at attention in this way isn't just academic. Research published in 2017 says that neural circuitry (pathways in the brain) related to attention are intricately related to conditions such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and achieving a greater understanding of this process holds promise for better treatments for those coping with this condition down the line.

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  1. Classics in the History of Psychology. The Principles of Psychology

     William James (1890).

  2. Srna S, Schrift RY, Zauberman G. The Illusion of Multitasking and Its Positive Effect on Performance. Psychol Sci. 2018;:956797618801013. doi:10.1177/0956797618801013

  3. Mueller A, Hong DS, Shepard S, Moore T. Linking ADHD to the Neural Circuitry of AttentionTrends Cogn Sci. 2017;21(6):474–488. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2017.03.009

Additional Reading
  • Myers DG. Exploring Social Psychology. New York, NY: McGraw Hill Education; 2015.

  • Revlin R. Cognition: Theory and Practice. New York: Worth Publishers; 2013.