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Example of attentive viewing
Different levels of attention

Attention is the allocation of (limited) awareness resources on contents of consciousness . That can be B. Perceptions of the environment or one's own behavior and actions , but also thoughts and feelings .

Concentration is a measure of the intensity and duration of attention . Attention directed to the occurrence of certain events is known as vigilance .

Neurobiological and cognitive aspects

The phenomenon of attention moved into the focus of research due to the technical progress in World War II: the soldiers were often not able to operate the new devices adequately , although they had been trained on it. The brain has a limited processing capacity; it cannot process very many stimuli at the same time. It must therefore select which information is important for the organism and must be given careful consideration and which information is less relevant and can therefore be hidden. Some stimuli automatically attract attention (for example a bang), on the other hand, attention can be controlled on purpose. If information is not paid attention to within five seconds, it is lost (for ultra-short-term memory see sensory memory ).

The process of paying attention is characterized by the attention (orientation) and selection (selectivity) of the objects and the associated inattention to other objects. Attention is characterized by increased alertness and activation, while selectivity has the function of a filter to separate important and unimportant information from one another.

First and foremost, danger signals and unknowns are classified as relevant by the brain. On the one hand, new stimuli are given attention ( orientation reaction , curiosity). On the other hand, attention is directed to emotionally charged information, which is an indirect marker of importance for the organism. The more emotionally charged a perception is, the easier it is for us to focus our attention on it. Needs, interests, attitudes and motives therefore play a major role in the generation and distribution of attention.

Neurophysiologically, attention processes are linked to variations in the P3 component in investigations of event-related potentials. This can lead to changes in latency and amplitude. The P3 is provoked in oddball paradigms .

Attention and awareness

Attention is closely linked to our consciousness : Turning attention to a stimulus or a thought is only the necessary condition for us to become aware of it. Nevertheless, the brain also processes stimuli to which we do not direct our attention. However, this processing takes place unconsciously .

Regular conscious directing of attention to individual body parts or the entire body leads to better blood circulation, a strengthening of the immune system and generally to an improved state of health. This will u. a. used in taijiquan and yoga to maintain health.

Attention as the focus of perception

Certain events in the phenomenal space of experience cause the attention to be focused on individual objects in the area of ​​perception. This focus of attention usually takes place when there is no clear reaction pattern to a stimulus and conscious processing is necessary. Because the perception is concerned with a reduced area of ​​perception, there is also a demarcation from other attention triggers of lower priority.

Example road traffic : subject-related warning (“It could also be your child”) as a request to drive carefully.

The focus of attention depends on certain properties of the objects, above all on the extent of the deviation from a central position:

  • Size and stimulus intensity (hot-cold, hungry-full)
  • Movement (deviation of the movement of an object from other objects, approaching objects, etc.)
  • Colourfulness (focus on contrasts, certain color combinations)
  • Contrast to the surroundings
  • sharp and regular delimitation
  • striking symmetry
  • a position at a certain point in the field of view, e.g. B. top left

These relationships are used by the advertising industry in order to optimally design advertising, e.g. B. posters, advertisements or brochures.

Amount of attention

The amount of visual attention is determined by the number of similar objects that can be seen at a glance, i.e. H. can be perceived in about 200 milliseconds. In adults this is 6 to 12 objects, on average 8 objects, in children less. The scope of attention also depends on:

  • the type of objects to be perceived,
  • the familiarity of the objects,
  • the lighting intensity on the objects,
  • the contrast under which the objects are recognizable,
  • the subjective attitude of the observer to the types of objects.

It is almost impossible to assess an optical and a tactile stimulus at the same time , as Richard Pauli (1914) showed. This also supports the assumption, referred to as narrowness of consciousness , that attention can only turn to one content at a time (referred to by Michael Posner as the spotlight model .) Multiple efforts are apparently based on a quick change in attention from one task to one other. This is exhausting and quickly leads to fatigue . This fatigue of attention and the rapid change of different types of attention (from auditory to visual, etc.) also make use of the so-called Pfänderspiele , which, however, also means good training of the same.

Assessment of types of attention

With very weak stimuli, e.g. B. when a distant wristwatch ticks softly, periodic fluctuations in attention can be detected. Viktor Urbantschitsch (1875) found a phase length of 5 to 8 seconds. Individual peculiarities of attentive behavior led to the differentiation of attention types:

  • the fixating attention is limited to a detail, has a narrow scope, is one-sided, rigid and analytical.
  • the fluctuating attention has a broad scope, is multifaceted, sliding, holistic and synthetic.

It is characterized by fluctuating talked attention when a person's attention is not directed to a particular stimulus or a detail, but quickly slid from one stimulus to another. To be attentive in a fluctuating way means to get an overview. Many different objects or stimuli are perceived in a short time so that they form an overall picture. While fixating attention is analytical, since it favors the perception of individual objects and their decomposition down to the last detail, fluctuating attention is synthetic. The range of perception is wide and the individual impressions are linked to one another.

Examples of feelings and activities that tend to favor fluctuating attentiveness can be found, for example, when cleaning up, participating in traffic, interacting with larger groups or in the vicinity of crowds.

Since Ernst Meumann (1913), a distinction has been made between visual, auditory and motor attention when certain sensory areas are preferred.

Models to explain attention

Numerous theories have been put forward to explain attention. The explanations by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1704) and Wilhelm Wundt (1873) are based on the assumption that attention is an inner process of will and serves the selective separation of the contents of consciousness and the apperception of ideas. The theories of Georg Elias Müller (1924), H. Henning (1925) and H. Rohrbacher (1953) assume physiological mechanisms in the central nervous system that cause a specific increase in excitability of certain areas of the cerebral cortex and facilitating effects.

The Gestalt psychologists negate attention as an independent process. Pyotr Jakowlewitsch Galperin (1968) regarded attention as a special form of psychic activity, namely as a control activity that controls the performance of mental actions.

More modern models are based on different filter systems of the perception system (e.g. Donald Broadbent 1958), which intervene at different points in the perception process and select the information. In this way, attention is automatically focused when there is strong personal relevance (example cocktail party effect : in the confusion of voices you can consciously focus on one voice; if your name is mentioned at a loud party, this automatically attracts attention). The same applies to the so-called pop-out effect : on a surface with uniform geometric figures (e.g. lines), a different type of figure (circle) immediately catches the eye. This effect can be trained up to a certain complexity and similarity of the geometric figures, and there is this effect not only in a similar way on colors (skilled textile workers can distinguish up to 300 shades of red), tones, etc., but also on a semantic level (e.g. . the cocktail party effect). Likewise, the focus on certain characteristic details and the focus of attention only in a certain perception area (behind me, right corner of the monitor) have been confirmed in studies. We are not always aware of what is controlling attention. Information recorded unconsciously can have a controlling effect and draw attention. One can subdivide into conscious and incompetent information. The former can often be discovered through targeted analysis and some “expert knowledge” can become common knowledge. An example of use is product placement in advertising. Ingestion of information inconscious, for example ultra-brief display of certain signals, is generally prohibited by law as it can have unconscious manipulative effects.

Attracting attention

Because attention is limited in scope, but at the same time represents a social value, reaching the attention of one or more people is an important goal for many. It becomes possible in very different ways, for example by appearing in the press, radio or television. Scandals quickly attract a lot of public attention. Change arouses attention more quickly than what remains, the announcement can already attract attention. This is used, for example, by politicians in the " summer slump ", but also by artists who use scandals to attract attention.

Attracting attention can also be used as part of a distraction . This tactic is used by speakers , athletes , magicians and pickpockets , among others .

Attention as a psychological construct

In general, attention represents the concentration of perception on certain stimuli in our environment. An essential component of attention is the selection of information (selection) in order to make it accessible to consciousness and to control thinking and acting. The cause of this mechanism is the limitation of the human capacity to process stimuli.

Early research

Alan T. Welford proved this fact in 1952 with the paradigm for the investigation of the psychological refractory period ( PRP). In these studies, test subjects were presented with two stimuli one after the other, to which they should react as quickly as possible. It turned out that the reaction time to the second stimulus changed depending on the time interval between the onset of the first stimulus and the onset of the second stimulus ( stimulus onset asynchrony SOA). Shorter SOAs (intermediate intervals) required longer reaction times to the second stimulus. As an explanation of these findings, the so-called "bottleneck" (true bottleneck ) in the human processing system. Since the processing of stimuli takes place serially, the first stimulus must already be processed before the processing of the second stimulus can begin (see blinking attention ).

Colin Cherry followed suit in 1953 with his “dichotic hearing” tests. The subjects were presented with one message in each case in the left and right ears (two messages at the same time). The message on one side should be repeated out loud. It turned out that the test subjects could not remember the second, ignored message in this test ( shadowing ). What was noticeable, however, was that, for example, a change in the gender of the speaker or presented beeps could be perceived.

Another paradigm is the split-span paradigm by Donald Broadbent from 1954. The test subjects were presented with pairs of digits simultaneously according to the principle of dichotic hearing. It was found that playback was preferred by ear and not by pairs. From this result and that of Cherry, Broadbent concluded that task-irrelevant messages are blocked and that physical stimulus characteristics (stimulus location, frequency) act as effective cues.

Further research on the subject of selective attention was carried out by Broadbent, Treisman, and Deutsch & Deutsch, the theories of which are discussed below.

Information processing theories

From the knowledge of the paradigms, Broadbent developed the filter theory of attention in 1958 . It says that inputs presented at the same time reach a sensory memory in parallel or simultaneously. However, only one input can pass the so-called selective filter on the basis of its physical characteristics. Further inputs are blocked, but remain in the memory for a fraction of a second for possible later access. Since it is a strictly serial processing model, a filter is necessary to protect it from overloads. But only information that has passed through this filter for further processing becomes conscious and can become part of long-term memory.

In 1960 Anne Treisman developed the attenuation (damping) theory of attention. She developed this theory, among other things, because some research results could not be adequately explained by Broadbent's filter theory. This means, for example, that with the “split-span paradigm” on the disregarded side, some stimuli could be noticed and remembered (beeps, language change). The so-called cocktail party effect has also not yet been explained. According to Treisman's theory, the filter mechanism does not work according to the all-or-nothing principle, but rather according to the principle of a damper by reducing the strength of the stimulus on the ignored channel. As a result, this information can be passed on in a weakened form and, depending on its meaning, processed semantically to a certain extent.

Contrary to Broadbent and Treisman's ideas, Deutsch & Deutsch assumed with their theory of late selection in 1963 that all sensory signals reach the same (highest) level of processing, regardless of whether attention is focused on them or not. A parallel multiple comparison process then determines the signal that is most relevant for the current task. As a result, only the most important signal becomes conscious and causes a reaction. According to this theory, the selection only takes place after the signals have been fully processed and on the basis of their meaning.

Current research areas

Attention states and the different frequencies in the electroencephalogram

Recent research has led to the realization that selective visual attention can be location-based , object-based, or dimension -based . This assumption could be confirmed with the help of functional magnetic resonance tomography studies on attention modulation by Brefczynski and DeYoe (1999). Evidence has been found that visual attention influences the activity of the cerebral cortex. When the attention is shifted , the activity in the cerebral cortex of the back of the head changes retinotopically , i.e. according to the visual pattern on the retina.

This observation was made earlier with the electroencephalogram (EEG). If the eyes are closed and attention is drawn away from the sense of sight, this is shown by an increased predominance of the alpha rhythm (see adjacent table) on the electrodes on the back of the head.

Working memory

A connection between attention and working memory could also be described. Imaging methods ( fMRI ) and EEG studies show that both processes produce very similar neuronal activities and, in particular in the primary visual cortex, simultaneous modulations are effected contralateral to the presented stimulus. From this it can be concluded that spatial working memory and spatial attention use similar mechanisms or that they are overlapping processes.

Multi-task performance

The research of multiple task performance deals with the execution of double or multiple actions carried out in parallel.

The tasks are not processed serially, but rather, for example, calls are made while driving or an e-mail is written during a television show. This is often called multitasking . Finally, multiple task performance is not uninteresting because it allows conclusions to be drawn about the functionality and limits of human information processing theories (see above).


“Everyone knows what attention is. It is the seizure of the mind, in a clear and vivid way, of one of what appears to be several objects or trains of thought possible at the same time. Attention and concentration of consciousness are part of their prerequisites. It implies neglecting some things in order to be able to process others better, and it is a state with a real opposite, namely the confused, dazed, scattered state, which in French means distraction and in German absent- mindedness . "

- William James , Principles of Psychology (1890)

See also



  • R. Pauli: About a method for examining and demonstrating the narrowness of consciousness and for measuring the speed of attention wandering. (= Munich studies on psychology and philosophy. Volume 1). Spemann, Stuttgart 1914.
  • Eugen Bleuler : Textbook of Psychiatry. 15th edition. edited by Manfred Bleuler with the collaboration of J. Angst et al. Springer Verlag, Berlin 1983, p. 77.
  • H. Henning: The investigation of attention. In: E. Abderhalden (Ed.): Handbook of biological working methods. Dept. VI, part 3. Urban & Schwarzenberg, Berlin 1925.
  • H. Henning: The attention. Urban & Schwarzenberg, Berlin 1925.
  • Donald Broadbent : The role of auditory localization in attention and memory span. In: Journal of Experimental Psychology. 47, 1954, pp. 191-196.
  • DE Broadbent: Perception and Communication. Pergamon Press, London 1958.
  • EC Cherry: Some experiments on the recognition of speech, with one and with two ears. In: Journal of the Acoustical Society of America. 25, 1953, pp. 975-979.
  • AT Welford: The 'psychological refractory period' and the timing of high-speed performance - a review and a theory. In: British Journal of Psychology. 43, 1952, pp. 2-19.
  • J. Deutsch, Diana Deutsch : Attention: Some theoretical considerations. In: Psychological Review. 70, 1963, pp. 80-90 (PDF) .
  • Ulrich Neisser : Cognitive Psychology. 1967.

Recent work

  • JA Brefczynski, EA DeYoe: A physiological correlate of the spotlight of visual attention. In: Nature Neuroscience . 1999, pp. 370-374.
  • C. Bundesen: A theory of visual attention. In: Psychological Review. 97, 1990, pp. 523-547.
  • EA Styles: Psychology of Attention. Taylor & Brands, Hover 1997 (Chapter 2). (2nd edition. Hove et al: Psychology Press, 2006)
  • M. Trautmann, FD Zepf: Attentional Performance, Age and Scholastic Achievement in Healthy Children. In: PLoS ONE. 7 (3), 2012, Art. No. e32279, doi: 10.1371 / journal.pone.0032279 .

Textbooks and dictionaries

  • David G. Myers: Psychology. 3. Edition. Springer, Berlin / Heidelberg 2014, ISBN 978-3-642-40781-9 , p. 132
  • K. Merten: Attention. In: Leon R. Tsvasman (ed.): The large lexicon media and communication. Compendium of interdisciplinary concepts. Ergon, Würzburg 2006.
  • Jochen Müsseler, Wolfgang Prinz (ed.): General psychology. Spectrum Academic Publishing House , Heidelberg 2002.
  • Dirk Hartmann : Attention. In: Philosophical foundations of psychology. WBG, Darmstadt 1998, II. The basics of general psychology. Cape. 2.2, pp. 123-146 (PDF; 17.1 MB) .
  • Bernhard Waldenfels : Phenomenology of Attention. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt 2004.

Web links

Wiktionary: attention  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. Eugen Bleuler (1916): Textbook of Psychiatry. Berlin; 15th edition: 1983 ( Manfred Bleuler ), ISBN 978-3-540-07217-1 . (Chapter IX.Attention to GoogleBooks )
  2. ^ MI Posner, ME Raichle: Images of Mind. Scientific American Books, 1994.
  3. ^ AT Welford: The "psychological refractory period" and the timing of high speed performance - A review and a theory. In: British Journal of Psychology. 43, 1952, pp. 2-19. Quoted from J. Müsseler, W. Prinz:. General Psychology. Spectrum Academic Publishing House, 2002.
  4. a b c d J. Prinz, W. Müsseler: General Psychology. Spektrum Akademischer Verlag 2002, as well as EA Styles: The Psychology of Attention. Psychology Press, Hove, UK 1997.
  5. D. Deutsch: Attention: Some theoretical considerations. In: Psychological Review. 70, 1963, pp. 80-90. (with YES German)
  6. Edward Awh, John Jonides: Overlapping mechanisms of attention and spatial working memory . In: Trends in Cognitive Sciences . tape 5 , no. 3 , p. 119–126 , doi : 10.1016 / s1364-6613 (00) 01593-x ( [PDF; accessed November 10, 2017]).
  7. Myers, 2014, p. Lit.
  8. Original: “Everyone knows what attention is. It is the taking possession by the mind, in 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 effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state which in French is called distraction, and Dispersion in German. "