Attention

Attention is key to memory, in particular, and to cognitive functioning, in general. Attention performs three different functions:  alerting, orienting, and executive function.1  Alerting, as in “heads up” or the drill command “Attention” is a call that you will need to pay attention.  Orienting refers to where, what, or to whom to pay attention.  These types of attention are preliminary to the larger category, executive attention.  Now sometimes all your attention can be devoted to performing one task.

 Unfortunately, it is often the case that you either cannot or that it is difficult to devote all your attention to one task.  This is called multitasking and multitasking seems to have dramatically increased in our high tech world.  Divided attention refers to situations when attention needs to be divided between two, or even among, several tasks.  Driving provides good examples of divided attention.  Sometimes it seems as if you are on automatic pilot.  You drive from point A to point B while thinking about a variety of topics and arrive at point B with little or no memory of the drive itself.  Clearly you were paying attention during the drive or there would have been a terrible accident.  Your System 1 processes had taken over during the drive handling the basic driving tasks automatically.  This can be dangerous, though.  If something unexpected occurs and System 2 attentional processes are not engaged, accidents can happen.2 Using a cell phone when driving divides attention to the point where driving performance is effectively equivalent to driving under the influence of alcohol.  States that have passed “hands free” laws when using a cell phone while driving, have missed the point.  It is the loss of attention to the driving task that is the primary problem here, not the ability to manipulate multiple objects.   Some have made the argument that passengers in the car converse with the driver regularly, so how is that any different from conversing on a cell phone.  The difference is that passengers are typically aware of the situation they are in and moderate the conversation accordingly.3   They can even be helpful by pointing out specific feature or actions that are transpiring to which the driver should be attending.  This is a case of divided attention in which attention must be selected to focus on the primary task.

A good example of the selective attention can be found in what is known as the Cocktail Party Problem. To make sense of the cacophony that typically surrounds us, we must selectively attend to what we are trying to understand or accomplish..  Consider a noisy cocktail party at which you are trying to attend to an interesting conversation with a friend.  Attention needs to be spent to tune into this conversation and to tune out all the other irrelevant conversations.  This can be quite difficult, and it is almost impossible to tune out the irrelevant conversations completely.  Under these conditions you might hear your name being mentioned in one of the conversations you are trying to tune out.   Apparently your cognitive system has assigned a high enough priority to your name so that it will capture your attention even under these adverse conditions.  The vast majority of processing that the brain does remains below the level of consciousness.  This subconscious processing calls your conscious attention to specific items deemed of high importance.

1Posner, M. I. (2009) in  The Sharpbrains Guide to Brain Fitness:  18 Interviews with Scientists, Prectical Advice, and Product Reviews, to Keep Your Brain Sharp.  Fernandez, A., & Goldberg, E.  (eds).  San Francisco, CA:  SharpBrains.

2See the Blog Post “The Two System View of Cognition.”

3Drews,  F.A., Pasupathi, M., & Strayer, D.L..  (2009).  Passenger and cell phone conversations in simulated driving. Journal of Experimental Psychology:  Applied, 14, 392-400.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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