WHAT IS ATTENTION?
By Glenda Thorne, Ph.D. and Alice Thomas, M.Ed.
Attention Quick facts
- Paying attention is the first step in the learning process.
- Everybody fails to pay attention sometimes, but some people
fail to pay attention a lot.
- Not paying attention to what you are doing can be a problem
for both children and adults. For example, not listening to
the directions in class can cause a student to do an assignment
wrong, and running a stop sign can cause an adult to have an
accident or get a traffic ticket.
- It is easy for almost anyone to pay attention to things that
are interesting or exciting to him.
- It is hard for most people to pay attention to things that
are not very interesting or exciting to them.
- Emotions such as feeling anxious, sad or depressed make it
harder for people to pay attention.
- It is difficult to pay attention to things when we are tired,
sick or not feeling well.
- People differ in their ability to focus their attention at
the right time on what is important.
- It is possible for people to manage their attention problems.
be nice if you would leave, Albert. Your behavior at
school, so distracted and absentminded, and your poor
interest in all I teach set a bad example for the whole
Teacher's comment to young Albert Einstein, from Albert
Einstein by Ibi Lepscky.
What is Attention?
According to John Ratey (2001), attention is more than just
noticing incoming stimuli. It involves a number of processes
including filtering out perceptions, balancing multiple perceptions
and attaching emotional significance to these perceptions.
There are two major forms of attention: passive and active. Passive attention
refers to the involuntary process directed by external events
that stand out from their environment, such as a bright flash,
a strong odor, or a sudden loud noise. We might say that because
passive attention is involuntary, it is easy. Active attention
is voluntary and is guided by alertness, concentration, interest
and needs such as curiosity and hunger. Active attention also
involves effort (Gaddes, 1994).
Active attention is a multidimensional cognitive process that
includes the ability to select and focus on what is important
at any given moment, the ability to consistently maintain mental
effort while performing tasks that require mental energy and
the ability to inhibit action or thought while previewing alternative
actions or thoughts. In other words, it is a complex process
that includes feeling alert and aroused, selecting what we should
be attending to, ignoring what we don't want to attend to, and
maintaining our focus for the right amount of time. Attention
allows us to plan or preview and monitor and regulate our thoughts
Attention is the first step in the learning process. We cannot
understand, learn or remember that which we do not first attend
to. Levine (1987, 1990, 1998, 2002) has provided a conceptual
framework for understanding the attention process and what happens
to students when breakdowns in this process occurs. In addition,
Russell Barkley (1997, 1998) has also contributed to our understanding
of attention. Let's look now at each of the components of attention.
Alertness and Arousal
Alertness is the initial step in the attention process.
If we are going to do something, or listen to someone, the first
thing that we need is to feel alert and aroused. In other words,
we need to feel like our battery is charged, like our brains
have energy. Just the way our bodies need physical energy if
we are going to run, our brains need mental energy if we are
going to think.
It might help to understand mental energy and alertness if we
think of a firecracker when it is going off. It sparkles and
lights up; it bursts with energy! If it were a person, it would
probably feel very alive and excited.
The part of the brain that controls our ability to become aroused
and alert is the Reticular Activating System or RAS for
short. The RAS is located in the brain stem at the back of the
neck. It is the part of the brain that helps us feel alert and
aroused when we wake up in the morning. It also allows us to
feel tired at night so that we can get to sleep. We can think
of the RAS as having a thermostat like the ones in our homes
or schools that control room temperatures. In the morning, the "thermostat" activates
us so that we wake up and become alert. At night, the thermostat
on the RAS does just the opposite. It turns our mental activity
level down, so we don't feel alert anymore. Instead, we feel
tired and sleepy. If we still felt alert, we would not be able
to get to sleep very easily. The RAS functions on its own. We
don't have to tell it what to do, and we usually don't even think
about it. It's a natural part of every day.
Selectivity and Saliency Determination
The next step in the attention process is called selectivity.
At any moment, there are a multitude of stimuli that are potentially
capable of capturing our attention. Because it is impossible
to attend to them all, we must decide which ones are the most
important. According to Levine (1990), attention is the brain's
channel selector. When students are in a classroom, they may
pay attention to what other students are doing, what is written
on the board, the color of their friend's new shoes, someone
walking down the hall, or what their teacher is saying. From
these many possibilities, the brain must decide which are the
most relevant from moment to moment and focus or concentrate
on them. Further, even when concentrating on a certain task,
there often are parts of that task that are more important than
others and must be scrutinized closely. The ability to select
the most important part of a task is called saliency determination. If
a stimulus is salient, it stands out among other stimuli. For
example, if we were in the mall and a group of fifty people all
dressed in rather ordinary clothes with ordinary hairstyles passed
us, we would probably not notice any particular one of them.
However, if in this group of people there were one person who
was wearing no clothes and had blue hair, we would certainly
remember the individual! He would be very salient to us.
In the classroom, if the teacher is giving instructions on how
to complete an assignment, these instructions are the most salient
information at that moment and therefore what should be attended
to. Also, if the teacher is giving a lecture in class and the
students are taking notes, they can't write down every word the
teacher is saying; there isn't enough time to do that. Therefore,
they must decide what is most important or salient and write
only this information down in their notebooks.
The part of the brain that controls our ability to select the
most important or salient information is the frontal lobes. This
part of the brain is just behind our forehead. Dr. Martha Denkla
at Johns Hopkins University compares the RAS part of the brain
to the frontal lobes. She says the RAS is like the lights in
a house. The RAS lights up everything. The frontal lobes are
like spotlights. They direct the light to specific places. So,
the RAS gives us mental alertness or energy and the frontal lobes
tell us where and for how long to direct that energy.
In order to select the most important or salient stimuli we
need to attend to at any given moment, we must filter out or
ignore other things around us that might distract us. Distractions
may be visual, such as other people who are near us or the birds
in the tree just outside the window. They may be auditory, such
as the clock ticking on the wall. They may be our own bodies,
such as feeling hungry. We may also be distracted by our own
thoughts. This particular type of distraction may take the form
of daydreaming or engaging in free flight of ideas in which one
thought leads to another which leads to another and so on.
Levine (1998) refers to free flight as the spread of mental
activation. In some circumstances, free flight is desirable and
may be described as creativity or divergent thinking. In fact,
according to Ned Hallowell (1994), creativity is attention deficits
gone right. Other mental distractions may be thinking about the
future or what is coming next instead of what is going on at
the present time, such as what we are going to do over the weekend
or the test we are going to have tomorrow.
Duration of Attention
Once we decide what we should attend to and filter out distractions,
we must then attend to it for the right amount of time - not
too long, not too short. This is called duration of attention.
Levine also calls this focal maintenance. Focal maintenance
means just what it sounds like it means - maintaining or staying
In the first section on alertness and arousal, we talked about
needing mental energy to think. In order to maintain focus, not
only do we have to have mental energy, we also must maintain
or sustain this mental energy for a sufficient amount of time.
Just as we need physical energy to start a race, we also need
enough energy to finish the race. In other words, our energy
must be consistent; it must last for the right amount of time.
Some physical tasks take more energy than others. For example,
it takes more energy to run a mile than it does to walk a mile.
It's the same with tasks that require mental energy to complete.
Some take more mental energy than others. Most students in school
have tasks they like to do or that are easy for them to do, and
tasks that they don't like to do or that are hard for them to
do. The harder tasks - usually the tasks they don't like - always
take more mental effort. For example, if a person really likes
to play Nintendo or other electronic video games, it really doesn't
take a lot of mental energy to pay attention while playing them.
Also, if a person really likes math, it usually doesn't take
a whole lot of mental energy or effort for him to do his math
work. But if he doesn't like math and/or it is really hard for
him, then the student must spend considerable mental energy or
effort to do math. Also, once a student starts his math, he must
have enough mental energy to finish it.
Just as physical energy needs to be steady or consistent to
run a race, mental energy needs to be steady or consistent to
complete a task that requires thinking. The part of the brain
that controls our ability to maintain mental energy for a sufficient
amount of time is the frontal lobes. This is the same part that
controls our ability to select what information is most important
Previewing and Planning
The fifth component of attention is called previewing.
Previewing can be thought of as reflection and planning. Before
we act, we need to consider all of the possible actions we could
perform and decide from among them which one is the best given
the specific set of circumstances in which we find ourselves.
To do this, we must consider the consequences of each possible
action and eliminate those that do not lead to the desired outcome.
Failing to take the time to engage in necessary planning or previewing
is called impulsivity, or the inability to inhibit behavior or
to regulate behavior by its consequences (Barkley, 1990). The
behavior that needs to be regulated may be cognitive (thoughts),
verbal, emotional or motor.
Previewing is important when one is interacting with other people,
and it is important in the classroom. For example, many teachers
do not want students to talk in class without first raising their
hands. So when a student thinks of something she wants to say,
she should stop and say to herself, "I must raise my hand
first, or Ms. Smith will get mad at me." Also, if a person
is having a conversation with a friend and the friend is saying
something that reminds her of something she wants to say, she
should wait until her friend has finished talking before she
speaks. Another time when previewing skills are important is
when a person is taking a test, especially a multiple-choice
test. The test-taker should read all of the choices and think
about whether each one is right before she marks one as correct
on her paper.
Self-Monitoring and Self-Regulation
The sixth component of attention is called self-monitoring or self-regulation,
and is a quality control issue. This component involves checking
over a task that is in progress, assessing the progress, and
making adjustments when necessary. Further, it involves reviewing
a task after it has been completed and making sure that it is
done correctly. In short, self-monitoring and self-regulation
are "watching" ourselves doing something while we are
For example, when talking to a friend, a person needs to be
very aware of what she is saying to her friend while she is saying
it. Look at this situation. A person has just gotten a new dog
and is very excited about her new pet. When talking to a friend
whose dog just got hit by a car, however, she "watches" carefully
to gauge her friend's response to her expressed excitement over
her new dog. If she sees that the conversation is bringing back
her friend's sad feelings over losing her pet, she expresses
her sympathy and changes the subject.
Self-monitoring is important when one is doing schoolwork or
taking tests. For example, when working math problems, a student
should check over her work to make sure that she did not make
a careless computational mistake. Another task that requires
self-monitoring is when one is writing a paper. The writer will
want to be sure to monitor herself so that she doesn't wander
off the subject or make careless grammatical errors.
Self-regulation also includes regulating the speed of concentration
or attention to a task. In order to complete a task, not only
must sufficient time (i.e., duration) be allotted to the task,
but also the pace must be sufficient so that each relevant aspect
of the task can be attended to. Self-regulation involves judging
the amount of time to allot to an overall task as well as to
parts of the task. In addition, it involves the ability to predict
how long a specific task will take to complete.
Tasks that are really hard and/or really important should be
given more time to complete than tasks that are easier or less
important. For example, more time should be set aside to read
a lengthy chapter in social studies than to work five short problems
in math. Also, when reading the social studies chapter, more
time should be spent on concepts that are harder to understand
than on those that are easier to understand. Another situation
that calls self-regulation is when a student needs to study for
a test. If a student has a math test the next day, he would want
to put aside extra time to study math or work a few additional
problems so he can be sure he is ready for the test.
Need for Stimulation and Body Movement
Other factors that are associated with attention include the need
for stimulation and the need for body movement. There
is a theory in psychology that proposes that all of us have
what is referred to as an optimal level of arousal. That is,
we each have some level of stimulation at which we are most
comfortable. For some people, that optimal level of arousal
is above average and they need considerable stimulation to
feel "comfortable". These individuals are often called thrill
seekers. They may enjoy activities such as going fast in cars,
hang gliding and parachuting. They easily feel bored and they
find boredom intolerable. Others people do not like high levels
of stimulation and they feel sufficiently aroused when sitting
at home reading a good book or talking on the phone to a friend.
They find riding in fast-moving cars and hang gliding intolerable.
Likewise, there are people who seem to have an excess of energy
and movement when compared with others. They are born with a
greater need to move that is biological and authentic. This movement
is often referred to as hyperactivity. People who are
hyperactive are also often described as "always on the go" or "driven
like a motor". Containing or channeling this excessive energy
and movement can present a challenge in school, as being in school
requires students to sit in desks and listen for much of the
day, just as being in long business meetings or conferences requires
the same for many adults. Dr. Martha Denkla at Johns Hopkins
University says that the hardest thing kids have to do in school
is to sit still all day. For some children and for some adults,
sitting still is almost impossible, and so they may fidget or
shake their leg or foot a lot. For some, this fidgetiness may
be a compensatory strategy that helps them stay alert and awake.
While not all people with attention problems display visible
hyperactivity, they may nevertheless experience hyperactivity
of thoughts. That is, their thinking may be on high speed. They
may say that their mind is always racing. Or, they may say they
always feel restless. This restless is very uncomfortable for
In summary, attention is a very complicated process with many
parts to it. Understanding the parts may help a student know
what he needs to do in school to pay attention and learn more
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