How Psychologists Define Attention

Attention focused on a smart phone
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Attention is the ability to actively process specific information in the environment while tuning out other details. Attention is limited in terms of both capacity and duration, so it is important to have ways to effectively manage the attentional resources we have available in order to make sense of the world.

In his 1890 book “The Principles of Psychology,” psychologist and philosopher William James wrote that 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."

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.

It's not just about centering your focus on one particular thing; it also involves ignoring a great deal of competing 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.

The Role of Attention in Learning and Thinking

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.

Attention plays a critical role in almost every area of life including school, work, and relationships. It allows people to focus on information in order to create memories. It also allows people to avoid distractions so that they can focus on and complete specific tasks.

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 distractions there are.

Types of Attention

There are many different types of attention that people may use. Some of these include:

Sustained Attention

This form of attention, also known as concentration, is the ability to focus on one thing for a continuous period. During this time, people keep their focus on the task at hand and continue to engage in a behavior until the task is complete or a certain period of time has elapsed.

Research suggests that sustained attention peaks during the early 40s and then gradually declines as people age.

Alternating Attention

This type of attention involves multitasking or effortlessly shifting attention between two or more things with different cognitive demands. It's not about focusing on more than one thing at the same time, but about stopping attending to one thing and then switching to the next task. 

Selective Attention

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.

Selective attention involves being able to choose and selectively attend to certain stimuli in the environment while at the same time tuning other things out. For example, you might selectively attend to a book you are reading while tuning out the sound of your next-door neighbor's car alarm going off.

This type of attention requires you to be able to tune out extraneous external stimuli, but also internal distractions such as thoughts and emotions in order to stay selectively attuned to a task.

Focused Attention

This type of attention involves being able to be suddenly drawn to a specific visual, auditory, or tactile stimuli such as a loud noise or a flash of light. It is a way of responding rapidly to external stimuli, which can be particularly important in situations where something in the environment requires immediate attention and quick action.

Limited Attention

Limited attention, or divided attention, is a form of attention that also involves multitasking. In this case, however, attention is divided between multiple tasks. Rather than shifting focus, people attend to these stimuli at the same time and may respond simultaneously to multiple demands.

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.

Improving Attention

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.

But even people without attention problems can benefit from using strategies designed to improve attention and focus. Some things you can try include:

  • Avoiding multitasking: If you want to improve your focus, try to avoid multitasking. Trying to juggle multiple tasks hurts productivity, so you can make the most of your limited attentional research by only working on one thing at a time.
  • Getting enough sleep: Research has shown that sufficient sleep is essential for maintaining optimal levels of attention. Not only that, the two appear to have a bidirectional relationship; sleep helps regulate attention, but attentional demands can also play a role in sleep.
  • Practicing mindfulness: Mindfulness, which involves paying attention to the present moment, is sometimes conceived of as a form of attention. Research has shown that mindfulness training may be helpful for improving attention.

New ways of improving attention may also be on the horizon. This may be helpful for treating attentional problems that are the result of some conditions.

For example, 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). 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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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.