Types of Attention: A Useful Guide
Attention is the direction of cognitive resources toward certain stimuli in the environment. As a cognitive process, it is essential for almost every endeavor that we undertake as humans. However, the process of attention often gets ignored on a conscious level. This is because paying attention is so innate to the human experience that most of us do not even notice that we are doing it. In fact, you probably did not take the time to stop and think about the fact that you are using the process of attention right now to read this article. But, just how are you paying attention to this article? There are many types of attention. Are you taking breaks while reading? Is the television on in the background? Are you doing something else at the same time you are reading? This article is an in-depth exploration of these different types of attention in an effort to define and differentiate them.
Types of Attention: What is Attention Anyway?
Attention is the ability to focus on relevant environmental stimuli. It is the cognitive process of evaluating your surroundings and picking out what is important. Attention acts as a highlighter of sorts. It does this by sorting through all the stimuli your brain is bombarded with and filtering out what is not pertinent. You are then able to bring into your consciousness only that which matters at any specific point in time.
Attention is one of the most important cognitive processes that humans engage in throughout their lifetime. Why is this? Well to start off, imagine that you do not have the ability to focus on only the environmental stimuli that matter to you in a specific moment. You are then unable to determine or direct your desire or behavior at that moment as well. Attention is what allows you to determine how to shape your behavior. Without attention, there is no directive action. Attention is also imperative to the learning process and memory. For something to be learned and remembered, you must first determine that it is important to focus on. In other words, you must first pay attention to it.
How Types of Attention are Differentiated
Before psychology was born, attention was studied as a branch of philosophy. This changed during the latter half of the 19th century when there was a huge growth in the field of psychology, and the study of attention shifted focus toward research and experimentation into the process of attention. Between 1860 and 1920 early psychologists laid much of the investigational groundwork for attention modeling. In fact, the first real model of attention came as early as 1890. The psychological study of attention processing began to slow after 1920, however. This lull in the study of attention lasted until 1949. Since 1950 though, there has been an almost constant stream of research on attention processing.
From 1950 to until the mid-1990’s, this research and experimentation have focused mainly on cognitive attention processing. This roughly forty-year period yielded a great deal of work that allowed for the specification of most, if not all, of the cognitive models of attention. It was not until the last quarter of the 20th century and the early part of the 21st, that the study of attention began to focus on the neuropsychological basis of attention processing. In these recent years, there have been numerous important studies that have begun to incorporate information about the inner workings of the brain that are used in the processing of attention. These studies have yielded the introduction of the clinical model of attention.
Types of attention are usually separated out based on which type of attention model they fall under. There are two main categories of attention models: Cognitive and Clinical. These categories are separated mainly by the type of research that was done the formation of each model as well the purpose that each model serves. There are many Cognitive Models of attention.
Types of Attention Based on Cognitive Models
These models are based on research into cognitive attention processing. Cognitive models of attention yield specifications of types of attention that are distinguished by the type of cognitive processing they involve. These types of attention are used mostly for theoretical and educational purposes. This is in sharp contrast to the singular clinical model. This model is based more on the neuropsychological research into attention processing. Types of attention based on the clinical model are differentiated mainly by the type of neuropsychological processing they involve. These types of attention are used for clinical purposes, such in the rehabilitation and treatment of attentional impairments.
Types of attention: Passive vs. Active attention
The distinction between these two types of attention might be the most important one to come out of cognitive attention models. So, what are these types of attention?
1. Passive attention refers to the involuntary process that occurs in the brain when you pay attention to an outside stimulus that stands out from its environment. This process occurs when we notice something like a sudden loud noise, like a siren. Passive attention is therefore said to be effortless.
2. Active attention, in sharp contrast, it is the voluntary process your brain engages in when you pick out a stimulus in the environment focus on. It takes effort on the part of your brain. Active attention is a complex multidimensional process that allows you to perform several important types of attention tasks. It allows you to not only choose what stimulus you should attend to but also to filter out what you should not attend to. It also allows you to maintain your focus on the chosen stimulus for the appropriate amount of time.
In recent years, studies have continued to show that passive and active attention are two very separate types of attention. The only real change in the distinction between these two types of attention has been the use of different language to describe each of them. Passive attention has also come to be known as covert attention and/or endogenous attention, while active attention is also called overt and/or exogenous attention.
Types of attention: Top-down vs Bottom-up attention
These two types of attention are distinguished from one another based on the type of information processing that is used in each of them. Top-down attention is based on top-down information processing. This type of attention processing is based on contextual information. Thus, when using top-down attention, what you attend to starts with the context a stimulus has in your internal perceptions, or cognition. Top-down attention starts in the brain.
Bottom-up attention is rather based on bottom-up information processing. This type of attention processing is based on sensory input and is said to be data-driven. It is not hard to see from this distinction, that bottom-up attention is, therefore, a more external process than top-down attention. Rather than attention being guided by your internal thoughts and cognitions, bottom-up attention is guided by the input your brain receives. Bottom-up attention starts with your environment.
The distinction between these two types of attention is rather obvious from how they are named. At its most basic, visual attention is the process of attending to what you see. On the other hand, auditory attention is the process of attending to what you hear. Just how you attend to what you see or hear is once again determined by the underlying cognitive process that you engage in while you are focusing on a stimulus. These types of attention are therefore ripe areas for experimentation. Attention models have spent much time experimenting with the various cognitive processing models as they interact with your vision or hearing. Psychologists have used the experiments conducted with both types of attention to learn a great deal about the underlying cognitive processes of the brain.
Types of Attention Based on The Clinical Model
As I previously mentioned, there is only one clinical model of attention. This model is based primarily on the work of Sohlberg and Mateer. They determined that attention is made up of five different levels, or types of attention. Solberg and Mateer called them levels because they noticed that all five types of attention engage with one another in a hierarchical fashion. That is to say, you must be able to engage in one level or type of attention, in order to have the ability to engage in any of the subsequent types of attention. I will now look at these five types of attention.
Types of attention: Focused attention
Focused attention refers to your ability to focus on a stimulus. It is the most basic level of attention as basically everyone can engage in this type of attention. Only those with severe brain injury or developmental impairment do not possess this ability. This ability, as well as other types of attention, can be trained.
Types of attention: Sustained attention
Sustained attention refers to your ability to actively focus on a specific stimulus over an elongated period of time. It is also referred to as vigilance. This type of attention is hugely important in your ability to perform most tasks. It is not hard to imagine how hard it would be to get anything done if you were unable to maintain focus on a stimulus. A good example of sustained attention is the attention it takes to maintain your focus on the road while driving. A thorough examination of crash data has shown that sustained attention is imperative to tasks involving situational awareness Sustained attention is quite fragile in nature and can be affected by numerous factors. Some of the factors that affect this type of attention include the amount of time spent attending to a stimulus, the environment surrounding the stimulus, your level of motivation while engaging with the stimulus.
Types of attention: Selective attention
Selective attention refers to your ability to focus on a specific stimulus. When you engage in this type of attention you are actively selecting out one stimulus to attend to while actively ignoring all surrounding stimuli. A good example of focused attention at work is your ability to focus on what one person is saying to you in an otherwise noisy room. It has been shown that almost everyone is able to engage in this type of attention to a certain degree. Some people are just better able to “tun out” what is not pertinent to the task they are performing. For example, some people need to minimize distractions while working, while others can focus on their work while surrounded by a great deal of distractions.
Types of attention: Alternating attention
Alternating attention refers to your ability to shift focus from one stimulus to another. Alternating attention can also be thought of as the ability to rapidly shift from one task to another. Alternating attention is used a great deal in meal preparation. When preparing pasta primavera for example, you might start by boiling a pot of water. While this water comes to a boil, you shift your attention to chopping up the vegetables for the pasta. Once the water is boiling you must switch your focus again to put the pasta in the water to cook, and so on. Tasks such as this show that a great amount of mental flexibility is needed for alternating attention to be performed. Meal preparation may seem easy enough, however, imagine performing this task without the ability to alternate your focus from one task to another.
Types of attention: Divided attention
Divided attention refers to your ability to maintain focus on more than one stimulus at a time. It is also referred to as multitasking. For example, you might listen to music while you are reading a book. Divided attention allows to both hear and focus the music while at the same time maintaining focus on the task of reading. The processes that your brain engages to perform divided attention are quite complex. Thus, using, evaluating, and rehabilitating divided attention is also quite complex.
Types of attention: Diagnosing attention impairments
There are many impairments that span all the types of attention specified in the clinical model. Attentional impairments are most commonly found with the presence of either a neurological condition, such as Alzheimer’s disease or acquired brain injury, or a developmental disorder, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or autism.
However, psychological research has shown that attention impairments are also quite common among the clinical population. For example, patients with either depression or schizophrenia often have selective attention impairments.
All types of attention impairments greatly influence many daily tasks and can be life-altering. Imagine that you have a sustained attention impairment that causes you to lose focus while driving. Your ability to drive would be quite affected and if not completely nullified. An alternating attention impairment may mean that preparing a meal is at the very least a chore for you. Imagine how many tasks would become harder or altogether impossible with attention impairment.
How do we diagnose different types of attention impairments? The process of diagnosis starts with testing for an attention impairment. There is a wide variety of tests for the full spectrum of different types of attention. The specific test used inf in diagnosis is dependent upon which of the types of attention the impairment is affecting.
For example, a common test for selective attention impairments is the Stroop Test. This test has three steps. In the first step, individuals are asked to read a list of words printed in black as quickly as they can. Next, they are asked to look at a list of the letter “X” printed in multiple colors and call out the ink colors as quickly as they can. The final step in the test asks participants to look at a list of words printed in different colors and name the color that each word is printed in while ignoring the meaning of the word. This is vastly different than the test that used for an diagnosing an alternating attention impairment. These impairments are tested for with what is called a Cancellation Task. In this test, participants are asked to cross out a specific stimulus and then immediately shift tasks to cross out a different stimulus. These two examples make is easy to see that simply testing for attention impairments is quite a complex undertaking. However, it is essential to the diagnosis of all types of attention impairment.
Types of Attention: Using the clinical model for attention impairment rehabilitation
Attention may be a fragile skill, but it is one that is learned and can be practiced. This fact makes the rehabilitation of attention impairments possible. Research into different types of attention rehabilitation has shown that rehabilitating a “lower” level of attention allows for greater gains when rehabilitating “higher” levels of attention. In other words, the rehabilitation of your divided attention, might start with work on your sustained attention skills. Neuroplasticity, or the ability for your neural pathways to change, is one of the most important factors in all types of attention rehabilitation.
There are numerous types of attention rehabilitation techniques. The most commonly used technique to come out of the clinical model of types of attention is the use of an Attention Process Training Program (APT). APTs come directly out of Sohlberg and Mateer’s research of cognitive and neuro-rehabilitation of traumatic brain injuries (TBI). While the research for APTs was based on TBIs, there are, in fact, different programs designed for specific use by nearly every population affected by attention impairments. This population ranges from adolescents with learning disabilities to veterans with combat injuries. Attention Process Training Programs are therefore the most widely used attention rehabilitation technique. They are used in a variety of settings such as hospitals, out-patient clinics, and even schools.
So Just what do the different types of Attention Process Training Programs do? APTs rehabilitate all types of attention impairments by having participants engage in various cognitive attention exercises and tasks designed to restore the neural networks of attention. Such tasks vary based on which one of the different types of attention the impairment is affecting. For example, the rehabilitation of sustained attention impairments focuses mainly on tasks that require attending to and identifying target stimuli and mental math activities. There are targeted attention tasks and exercise for each of the other types of attention contained in the clinical model as well.
Research has shown that one fact about attention impairment rehabilitation holds true across the board however. Rehabilitation is possible. This is true no matter which one of the types of attention your impairment affects. If you have an attention impairment, do not give up hope. Rather engage yourself in the rehabilitation process.
Do you have any attention problems? Is it difficult for you to keep focused? Let us know in the comments below.
Amanda is an experienced content writer who graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles with a degree in psychology. Since graduating, she has worked as both and hands-on practitioner and researcher in the field. She currently specializes in research and writing about the psychological and health ramifications of trauma. She is particularly interested in the neuropsychology of PTSD and traumatic brain injury, TBI, in combat veterans. She hopes to one day work as a trauma treatment specialist for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.