How Psychologists Define Attention

Attention focused on a smart phone
Attention is both limited and selective. Plume Creative / Digital Vision / Getty Images

Attention is a concept studied in cognitive psychology that refers to how we actively process specific information in our environment. As you are reading this, there are numerous sights, sounds and sensations going on around you – the pressure of your feet against the floor, the sight of the street out of a nearby window, the soft warmth of your shirt, the memory of a conversation you had earlier with a friend.

All of these sights, sounds and sensations vie for attention, but it turns out that our attentional resources are not limitless. How do we manage to experience all of these sensations and still focus on just one element of our environment? How do we effectively manage the resources we have available in order to make sense of the world around us?

Let's take a closer look at how psychologists define attention and the many factors that impact our ability to attend to seemingly endless information that competes for our focus.

What Is Attention?

How do psychologists explain attention? Exactly how does attention work? According to psychologist and philosopher William James, attention "is the taking possession of the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what may seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thoughts…It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others."

Think of attention as a highlighter. As you read through a section of text in a book, the highlighted section stands out, causing you to focus your interest on that area. But attention is not just about centering your focus on what particular thing; it also involves ignoring a great deal more competing information and stimuli.

Attention allows you to "tune out" information, sensations, and perceptions that are not relevant at the moment and instead focus your energy on the information that is important.

Not only does our attentional system allow us to focus on something specific in our environment while tuning out irrelevant details, but it also affects our perception of the stimuli surrounding us. In some cases, our attention might be focused on a particular thing, causing us to ignore other things. In some instances, focusing our attention on a primary target might result in not perceiving the second target at all.

In other words, by focusing our attention on something in the environment, we sometimes miss other things that are right in front of us. You can probably immediately think of a situation where you were so focused on a task that you neglected to notice someone walking in the room or talking to you. Since your attentional resources were so focused on one thing, you neglected something else.

In order to understand how attention works and how it affects your perception and experience of the world, it is essential to remember a few key points about how attention works.

Key Things to Remember About Attention

1. Attention Is Limited

There has been a tremendous amount of research looking at exactly how many things we can attend to and how long. Researchers have found that key variables that impact our ability to stay on task include how interested we are in the stimulus and how many distractors we experience. Studies have demonstrated that attention is limited in terms of both capacity and duration.

2. Attention Is Selective

Since attention is a limited resource, we have to be choosy about what we decide to focus on. Not only must we focus our attention on a specific item in our environment, but we must also filter out an enormous number of other items. We must be selective in what we attend to, a process that often occurs so quickly that we do not even notice that we have ignored certain stimuli in favor of others.

3. Attention Is a Basic Part of the Cognitive System

Attention is a basic component of our biology, present even at birth. Our orienting reflexes help us determine which events in our environment need to be attended to, a process that aids in our ability to survive. Newborns attend to environmental stimuli such as loud noises. A touch against the cheek triggers the rooting reflex, causing the infant to turn his or her head to nurse and receive nourishment.

These orienting reflexes continue to benefit us throughout life. The honk of a horn might alert us about an oncoming car. The blaring noise of a smoke alarm might warn you that the casserole you put in the oven is burning. All of these stimuli grab our attention and inspire us to respond to our environment.


James, W. The Principles of Psychology. New York: Holt; 1890.

Revlin, R. Cognition: Theory and practice. New York: Worth Publishers; 2013.

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