The Psychology of Attention

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How attention works, what happens when it fails and how it can be improved.

Every day we we are bombarded with perceptions, ideas and emotions and what we choose to pay attention to shapes our lives, it makes us who we are.

Attention is one of the most fascinating and highly researched areas in psychology. Psychologists have found that with training we can perform impressive feats of multitasking, we can divide our visual attention (without moving our eyes) and we are surprisingly effective at picking out just one voice from a multitude.

This series of posts looks at how attention works, how it fails and what we can do to improve it.

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1. The Cocktail Party Effect
For psychologists the ‘cocktail party effect’ is our impressive and under-appreciated ability to tune our attention to just one voice from a multitude. It’s a great example of just how selective our attention can be.


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2. The Attentional Spotlight
Our attention moves around the visual field, often remarkably independent of our actual gaze direction. Psychologists have been forced to come up with ingenious methods for probing the abilities of our ‘mind’s eye’.


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3. Learning to Multitask: Simultaneous Reading and Writing
Research that hints at our potential to carry out two sophisticated tasks which require conscious deliberation at the same time. Perhaps there really is no limit to our general cognitive capacity.


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4. Can Visual Attention Truly Be Divided?
Measuring the electrical activity in the brain suggests people can successfully divide their attention between two different locations for several seconds.


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5. 18 Ways Attention Goes Wrong
18 ways attention can go wrong, some very common, some extremely unusual, a few downright weird; each giving us an insight into how our minds work.


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6. Attentional Blink and the Stream of Consciousness
We are caught in a world of metaphorical attentional blinks which, like literal eye-blinks, we usually don’t notice because consciousness papers over the cracks. Consciousness is less of a smooth stream and more of a bumpy ride.


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7. How Meditation Improves Attention
William James wrote that controlling attention is at “the very root of judgement, character and will”. He also noted that controlling attention is much easier said than done.

[Image credit: royblumenthal]

About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 13 May 2009

Text: © All rights reserved.

Images: Creative Commons License