Attention, a state of awareness in which an individual's mental focus is directed toward selective elements in the surrounding environment rather than toward everything that is within the range of his or her sight and hearing. This selectivity is seen, for example, in a driver who says following an accident, "I never saw the other car," even though the car was in his or her field of vision.
Attention involves the whole body. Watching for something requires turning the head and focusing the eyes, and nerves and muscles in the rest of the body are involved as well. Psychologists have been able to detect small muscle movements and changes in blood pressure and nerve impulses in people who are apparently sitting still but are in a state of alertness.
Factors in Attention. A number of factors influence attention, but the most important is interest or motivation. This factor can be demonstrated experimentally with a device called a tachistoscope, which presents pictures for very brief intervals. When subjects are given brief views of pictures, they usually recall few details, though they may have an impression of size or color. If, however, they are told to look for certain details, they are much more successful in detecting and reporting them.
The influence of this kind of mental preparation is often illustrated in everyday life. A mother whose child is playing in the street will hear screeching brakes and tires, while a guest in the same room may not notice a thing. A student who is attentive in class usually hears and remembers more than one whose interest is focused elsewhere. The alert student may be motivated by enthusiasm for the subject or by a desire to win the reward of a good grade. In either case, he or she is giving voluntary attention, which helps that individual to learn. In general, anything that arouses an expectant attitude makes a person attentive. (See also Attitude.)
Although interest is basic to attention, a number of objective factors also are important in making objects and events stand out. Large size, unusual shape, bright color, and changing position are effective, and advertisers make use of these elements in signs and displays. Loud sounds can be used to attract involuntary attention.
Repetition can be used to make people attend to a message, as when advertisers repeat a television commercial or display hundreds of posters on the streets. However, there is a point of diminishing effect in repeating a stimulus. A message that is heard repeatedly over days and weeks may become monotonous; it may then move out of the focus of attention and become part of the background noise of the environment.
Novelty is useful in arousing attention. Hence teachers try to pose challenging questions for their students, and advertisers search for fresh approaches in pictures and copy. Contrast will often compel attention. As a familiar example, a green lawn would be highly noticeable in an arid country but would not seem remarkable in England or New England.
Itti, Laurent, et al., eds., Neurobiology of Attention (Elsevier Pub. Co. 2005).
Johnson, Addie, and Robert W. Proctor, Attention: Theory and Practice (Sage Pubns. 2004).
Scholl, Brian J., ed., Objects and Attention (MIT Press 2002).
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"Attention." Encyclopedia Americana. 2007. Grolier Online. 7 Apr. 2007 <http://ea.grolier.com/cgi-bin/article?assetid=0025880-00>.