Chapter 1 Background

Some aspects of attention are common-sense enough that they were known already at the very beginning of the scientific study of psychology. As William James put it in 1890,

Every one knows what attention is. It is the taking possession by the mind, in a clear and vivid form of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. Focalization, concentration of consciousness are of its essence. It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal with others

Some aspects of attention are embedded in everyday speech:

  • Please “pay attention!”
    • Implies one has to choose something (“attend” to it) to fully process it.
  • “Sorry, I wasn’t listening”
    • There’s a difference between hearing something and listening to it. Listening means we are attending to it. If we do not pay attention, we are less likely to retain something someone says, and possibly we won’t even comprehend what they said.
  • “Sorry, I missed that.”
    • People sometimes say this after someone else says something and the first person realizes that they didn’t understand what was said. In particular, people say it when they don’t think the problem was that the statement was not loud enough for them to hear. Instead, the problem is often something with attention.
  • “I didn’t notice that.” What might people mean differently when they say that rather than choosing to instead say “I didn’t see that.”?

Failures to notice things explain a large number of accidents. But why do we have to pay attention to comprehend or retain some information? That is the subject of the next two chapters 3.

If you took PSYC1 at the University of Sydney, you already heard Caleb Owens’ “Cognitive Processes 2” lectures on visual attention, which were related. They had the following learning outcomes:

  • Understand and be able to give examples of situations where focused visual or auditory attention leads to limited processing of other stimuli.
  • Be able to define, distinguish and give examples of focused attention, divided attention, diffused attention, inattentional blindness, and change blindness.
  • Understand and be able to describe the difference between an early, late or flexible locus of selection.
  • Be able to both give and interpret examples which demonstrate an early, late or flexible locus of selection.
  • Be able to define and distinguish between endogenous and exogenous attention
  • Understand the role of attention according to Treisman’s FIT (feature integration theory) and the visual search evidence (for both feature and conjunction targets) which supports it.

You are not responsible for these! This year has its own list of learning outcomes (2).

We will both review material from Caleb’s lecture and bring new ideas to bear, as well as add more material. In the parts that review what Caleb already taught, I will go quickly, so you may want to review his material from last year - I have put his slides on Canvas.