Attention and Mentality

Attention does not exist on its own. It's always accompanied by some mental process (perception, thinking, etc.). At the same time, the “searchlight” of attention “touches” and analyzes the environment. Since instant perception of the whole environment is impossible, your attention highlights a part that contains the necessary object. Such limitation and “filtration” of excess information creates a clearer image of the object. It lets you successfully carry out intellectual operations, e.g. understand texts, solve tasks, etc.

Attention Types

Attention is a continuous psychological process, because it accompanies all kinds of mental activity and is inseparable from all cognitive processes. Depending on the level of cognitive regulation, attention is divided into involuntary, voluntary, and post-voluntary attention.

Involuntary (passive) attention — This a type of attention doesn't feature any consciously chosen object. It is activated and maintained regardless the person's will. (E.g., it is difficult not to turn around when you hear a loud noise or notice a bright flash of light.) It is often based on physical parameters of the signal/object: suddenness, intensiveness, contrast, and length. Involuntary attention manifests itself as an orientating response to an unexpected stimulus. As a rule, involuntary attention is not maintained for a long period of time. Voluntary attention — if a person's attention is connected with a consciously stated objective, it is voluntary. (E.g., you've decided to learn more about attention and are currently reading this text.) It is active and targeted. This kind of attention is accompanied with conation. Its physiological mechanism is based on stimulation in the cerebral cortex. Voluntary attention is developed throughout a person's education and work, because systematic conscious activity is impossible without attention control.

Post-voluntary attention— if a person makes an attempt and focuses his attention on some important activity, he will be able to continue it without effort after a while. (E.g., studying for a difficult exam for the whole day.) First, his attention is involuntary and then it turns into voluntary attention. It features conscious selection of the object, but lacks volitional impulse typical of voluntary attention. It is based on automation of many mental activities and change in motivation associated with the person's current activity.

Attention Characteristics


Basic characteristics of attention are attention span, concentration, stability, ability to switch, distribution, and selectivity.

Attention span — is a number of objects a person can clearly perceive at a time. Attention span is an indicator of attention “width — narrowness”. According to the tests, attention span cannot be developed and is generally limited to 6-7 elements. (For example, some pilots were trained to find low targets during low altitude flights (below 100 meters). It was proven to be impossible, because both piloting and search required maximum concentration. Attention refused to “split” and long training sessions had no effect.) When the number of elements within the scope of attention increases your brain starts structuring them (into groups of 2, 3 or more elements). For instance, 4 digits in 1945 are perceived as a single element. It is harder to structure variegated stimuli, while similar elements simplify this task. (Try memorizing 2010 and å%7@. Which one is harder to recall?)

Attention concentration — is a person's concentration degree on some object or activity. Attention concentration is an indicator of attention “depth” and determines a person's ability to work in unfavorable conditions. Concentration heavily depends on interest and motivation. (When you read a thrilling story or watch an interesting movie you forget everything around you.) Ability to switch — is the premeditated and purposeful transition of your mental flow from one object to another due to a selection of a new goal. Ability to switch is your attention's “speed” of transition from one object to another. It is based on person's individual parameters (correlation of stimulation and inhibitory processes of person's nervous system), activity and motivation level, and object of regard. Ability to switch attention is the reverse side of concentration. The more focused you are, the harder it is to switch — that's where the jokes about absent-minded scientists come from. Scientists are so focused on their task that they cannot switch their attention to small things when they face them. (Borodin, a famous composer and chemist, once was holding a dinner at home and after he had become tired he took his leave explaining that he needed to go, because he was reading a lecture the following day, and went to the anteroom to get his coat.)

Attention distribution — personal ability to focus your attention on several variegated objects or perform several tasks simultaneously. In the 19th century, people already knew that it is impossible to concentrate on 2 or more things at the same time. You probably heard of Julius Caesar's phenomenal ability to do 7 things at the same time, or about Napoleon, who was able to dictate several important texts simultaneously to his secretaries. There is every reason to believe that the feeling of simultaneity comes from very quick switching from one activity to another.

An average person can distribute his attention on several automated activities. For example, you can drive a car, talk to your friend, and eat a pie at the same time as long as the situation is unstrained. You wouldn't try doing that on a slippery road. Thus, attention distribution is in fact the reverse side of attention switching.

Attention stability is how long you can stay focused on the object. Stability is the “duration” of voluntary attention. It is defined by the period of time you can keep your attention at its initial quality level. Stability depends on your physical state, interest, and motivation (you can cope with interesting work in the morning better than with boring stuff in the evening when you are tired).

Attention selectivity— is the ability to pick certain objects out of a wide object range. Selectivity is an ability to sort objects, turn some of them into “figures” and the others — into “background”. Your selectivity is influenced by your emotional state and information's relevance to your needs (when you are starving all the café signs on your way keep catching your eye, but you don't pay much attention to them when you are not hungry). Manual and unfinished actions also require more attention (try to remember the tough time you had driving your car for the first month).

“Party phenomenon” is a good example of selectivity. Imagine yourself at somebody's place, fully engrossed in an interesting discussion with your friends. Suddenly, you hear your name softly uttered by someone in the other group of people. You quickly switch your attention to their conversation hoping to hear something curious about yourself. In the meantime, you stop listening to your friends and lose the thread of the conversation you took part in. It was not the strength, but the significance of the signal, which attracted your attention.