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Attention - The Study of Attention, Attention in Infants, Effortful Control, Intelligence

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Because some forms of learning are critically dependent upon attention, it is important for educators to be familiar with modern developments in this field. The most widely known definition of attention extends back to the late 1800s. The psychologist and philosopher William James (1842–1910) defined it as "the taking possession of the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought" (pp. 403–404).

This definition conveys intuitive feeling for the subject. However, it is common to break the subject down into two subdivisions: (1) arousal and (2) selection of information. The processes involved in arousal involve achieving and maintaining an alert state sufficient to remain in contact with environmental stimuli. This sense of attention separates the waking state from conditions such as sleep or coma. Selective attention refers to the processes involved in selecting information for consciousness, for immediate response, or for storing information in memory. The conscious content of selective attention is only a small subset of the information that could be available at any given moment. Thus, the ability to switch or orient one's attention is critical to the successful use of attention in any environment.

Attention can also be considered in terms of its underlying anatomy. It is useful for educators to think about attention as an organ system, not unlike the familiar organ systems of respiration and circulation. Attention has a distinct anatomy that carries out basic psychological functions and that can be influenced by specific brain injuries and states. The network involved in achieving an alert state involves midbrain centers that are the source of the chemical norepinepherine. This network appears to be asymmetric at the cortical level, with greatest involvement of the right cerebral hemisphere, particularly in the frontal regions. Two networks are involved in the process of selection of information. One of these relates to orienting to sensory information, and involves areas of the parietal lobe, frontal eye fields, and superior colliculus, which are also part of the eye movement system. A second network is related to attention to internal thoughts. This network involves areas of the frontal midline (anterior cingulate), the left and right lateral prefrontal cortex, and the underlying basal ganglia.

The Study of Attention

The study of attention has greatly expanded as new methods have become available for its study. From the early beginnings of psychology in the late 1880s, studies of attention employed simple experimental tasks that required rapid responses to single targets–or to one of a small number of targets–in an effort to study limitations in people's speed and capacity for attending to input information. A good example of the type of tasks used is the Stroop effect. This effect occurs when subjects are asked to respond to the color of ink in which a conflicting word may be written (e.g., the word blue written in red ink). Performance on this task requires an act of selection to ignore the word and respond to the ink color. Another task used to explore selection is a visual search task. It has been shown that attention can be efficiently summoned to any part of a natural scene in which luminance or motion clearly signal a change, but even radical changes of content that occur outside the focus of attention are not reported. This indicates that the subjective impression of being fully aware of the world around one is largely an illusion. People have very poor knowledge about things they are not currently attending to, but a very good ability to orient toward an area of change.

In the 1950s functional models of information flow in the nervous system were developed in conjunction with an interest in computer simulation of cognitive processes. In the 1970s studies using microelectrodes on alert monkeys showed that the firing rate of cells in particular brain areas were enhanced when the monkey attended to a stimulus within the cells' receptive field. In the 1980s and 1990s human neuroimaging studies allowed examination of the whole brain during tasks involving attention. These newer methods of study also improved the utility of more traditional methods, such as: (1) the kinds of experimental tasks discussed above, (2) the use of patients with lesions of particular brain areas, and (3) the use of recordings of brain waves (EEG) from scalp electrodes. The ability to trace anatomical changes over time has provided methods for validating and improving pharmacological and other forms of therapy.

Attention in Infants

Infants as young as four months old can learn to anticipate the location of an event and demonstrate this by moving their eyes to a location where the event will occur. Thus, caregivers can teach important aspects of where a child should focus, and they can also use orienting to counteract an infant's distress well before the infant begins to speak. Infants also show preferences for novel objects in the first few months of life. In early childhood, more complex forms of attentional control begin to emerge as the frontal areas undergo considerable development. These networks allow children to make selections in the face of conflicting response tendencies. Late in the first year, infants first show the ability to reach away from the line of sight, and later the developing toddler and preschooler begin to develop the ability to choose among conflicting stimuli and courses of action.

Infants come into the world with a definite set of reactions to their environment, and even siblings can be very different in their reactions to various events. These individual differences, which include individual differences in orienting and effortful control of attention, constitute temperament. One infant, for example, is easily frustrated, has only a brief attention span, and becomes upset with even moderate levels of stimulating play. Another may tolerate very rough play and frequently seek out exciting events, focusing on each interest so strongly that it is difficult to get the child's attention. Thus, even early in life, when attention serves mainly orienting functions, children will differ in what captures their interest–and in how this interest is maintained. These functions will continue to serve the child during the school years, where interest accounts for about 10 percent of the variability in children's achievement. However, later-developing attention systems will prove to be even more important in schooling.

Effortful Control

Later in childhood, maturation of the frontal lobe produces more reliance on executive attention, allowing increased scope for methods of socialization. The strength and effectiveness of this later developing effortful control system is also an important source of temperamental differences. Among older children, some will be able to intentionally focus and switch attention easily, to use attention to inhibit actions they have been told not to perform, and to plan for upcoming activities. Other children will be less able to control their own attention and actions. These differences reflect effortful control and have been found to play an important role in the development of higher-level systems of morality and conscience as well as being generally important in the control and programming of action and emotion.


Children's abilities also differ in the cognitive domain, as is shown in tests of intelligence. Differences in cognitive ability rest in part on the frontal structures related to the development of the executive attention systems. Areas of the left and right ventral prefrontal cortex become active in questions that require general intelligence. A likely reason is that these areas are important for holding information in the mind, while other brain areas retrieve related knowledge that might be important in solving problems. The ability to solve problems like those present in intelligence tests requires both specific knowledge and the ability to retrieve information in response to the prompts present on the test. High-level attentional networks involving frontal areas are very important in this process.

The learning of new skills, such as reading and arithmetic, also requires attention so that relevant input can be stored. The storage of such information rests upon structures that lie deep within the temporal lobe. Attention appears to play an important role at several stages of acquisition of reading. It is important for subjects to be able to break visual and auditory words into their constituent letters or phonemes in order to gain knowledge of the alphabetic principle that allows visual letters to be related to word sounds. The role of frontal attentional networks also plays a key role in accessing word meanings.

Teachers are usually aware that maintaining an alert state in the school environment is dependent both upon factors that are intrinsic to the child–such as adequate rest, good nutrition, and high motivation–and those that can be controlled by the teacher, such as the use of novel and involving exercises at an appropriate level to challenge the student. Capturing the child's interest is important in fostering achievement, but effortful control allows the practice of skills that can lead to new interests, and the developing goal structures of children will allow the development of interest in activities or skills that will lead them to their chosen goals.

Teachers thus need to be aware of individual differences in the development of the mechanisms of selective attention important in the storage and retrieval of information relevant to various tasks. Assessment of attentional capacities may be very useful for this purpose. Children can then be encouraged by exercises appropriate to their level to sustain the effort necessary for effective problem solving. Assessment of the school environment may also be useful in considering children's attentional capacities. The application of effortful control can be tiring, and the opportunities for skill learning and for active play may be important in supporting its activity.

Finally, attention is also important in the development of children's social skills. When teachers point out aspects of other children's experiences and focus on the welfare of others, they can train the direction of a child's interest and concern. Again, this activity will be easier with some children than with others, but it can serve the goal of encouraging empathy and discouraging aggression in a child's development.


JAMES, WILLIAM. 1890. Principles of Psychology. New York: Henry Holt.

POSNER, MICHAEL I., and RAICHLE, MARCUS E. 1994. Images of Mind. New York: Scientific American Books.

POSNER, MICHAEL I., and ROTHBART, MARY K. 2000. "Developing Mechanisms of Self-Regulation." Development and Psychopathology 12:427–441.

RUFF, HOLLY A., and ROTHBART, MARY K. 1996. Attention in Early Development: Themes and Variations. New York: Oxford University Press.



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