In cognitive psychology ATTENTION refers to the concentration of our thoughts on concrete and abstract events (R. Solso), to the distribution of cognitive resources for information processing (J. Anderson), to the focus of consciousness (W. Chafe). Attention is based on the selective nature of perception, on information processing and storage. Consciousness (unconsciousness), heterogeneity, selective orientation, a combination of stability and mobility are the integral characteristics of attention.

There is no agreement between the cognitive scientists on the matter of consciousness and unconsciousness of attention. J. Bruner considers attention to be an unconscious process, but according to W. James attention may be partially subjected to conscious control. The distinction between the two types of attention is accepted in modern cognitive psychology: passive (bottom-up) and active (top-down) attention.

The heterogeneity of attention reveals itself in two different ways – in terms of the existence of parallel systems of information processing and in terms of the involvement of mechanism of reinforcement (focusing) and suppression (attenuation) in attention shifts.

Concerning the first aspect it should be emphasized that human cognitive activity is supported by different information processing systems that function simultaneously. It presupposes the distribution of cognitive efforts between auditory and visual attention and between attention directed at the sensory perception of the incoming signal and attention aimed at producing reaction to this signal.

Due to the limited nature of cognitive abilities of a person there is a so called “bottleneck” in each of the above mentioned systems: at a certain moment we have to concentrate on one stimulus and ignore the rest. It presupposes the second manifestation of heterogeneity of attention: attention shifts depend on the ability of a person to combine two opposite abilities – to focus on one group of objects and not to pay attention to another. Selection like that is important because the ability to focus on one message and postpone the processing of another allows us to “process a limited amount of information and not to overload the mechanism of processing” [Solso 1996: 116].

One more important question is connected with the selective orientation of attention. As people face many stimuli in their everyday activities that are perceived more or less simultaneously, how can we account for the choice of the object of attention aside from the limited channel capacity? Attention can be redirected due to both external and internal factors. In the first case a sudden appearance of the external object-stimulus (of a loud sound, of a bright picture, of an unusual use of a word) accounts for the attention shift. In the second case this shift may be caused by personal feelings of the recipient or by his or her intentions of making a certain strategic decision [Houde 2003].

At the same time thanks to the relevant stability of attention a person is capable of perceiving a necessary object as a perceptually highlighted even in case of appearance of distracting objects nearby. It follows that we are able to control our attention according to our own interests and personal experience.

In general, many concepts of psychology connected with the distribution of attention formed the basis of the semantic analysis of linguistic phenomena in cognitive linguistics (e.g. Figure and Ground; Profile, Base, Domain; Trajector and Landmark).

Further reading

Солсо Р. Л. Когнитивная психология. — М.: Тривола, 1996.

Anderson J. V. Cognitive Psychology and its Implications. — NY: Worth Publishers, 2000.

Bruner J.S., Goodnow J.J., Austin G.A. A Study of Thinking. — NY: NY Science Edition, 1967.

James W. The Principles of Psychology. Vol. 1. — NY: Dover Publications, 1950.

Olga Iriskhanova

Translated by Ann Sigova