What is Attention? - Defining the Concept of Attention
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What is Attention? - Defining the Concept of Attention

What is the relationship between attention and cognition? How do you define attention?

Attention is the process of directing attention to a specific task. Sometimes, directing attention can be done without conscious thought of the task performed. For instance, when an individual is proficient at operating a motor vehicle, operating the individual parts of the car are done automatically. When approaching a corner, the driver will signal his intention to turn by activating the blinkers, and can do so without diverting all his attention to that task.

Other tasks require full, conscious attention to be completed, and although attention can be shifted between tasks, the cognitive processes required for each determine how much confusion can occur. Listening to a song and trying to recall a tune from an old favorite is difficult unless attention is completely on one or the other. Attention draws on the various underlying cognitive processes necessary to complete a task.

Some tasks might require hearing, but not vision. Another task may require vision, but not hearing. However, if two tasks require the same process, like identifying the tune while another is playing, some difficulties can be expected. The multiple resource approach outlined by Willingham (2007) states “the idea is that you have several independent pools of attention, not one general pool (p.112).

Can Attention be Consciously Allocated to Tasks?

Attention can be allocated to a specific task, and more than one task can be handled simultaneously. For example, walking and speaking can occur at the same time. Although this might be obvious because the tasks require the use of motor skills and attention to words spoken, it is still necessary for an individual to be aware of where he is walking so he does not run into stationary objects, as well as recalling directional information about how to get to his destination. Furthermore, while carrying on a conversation about how to knit a sweater, attention can be temporarily shifted when approaching an intersection, so that traffic can be avoided, and a catastrophe averted. According to Willingham, (2007), however, “we cannot say that a task demands a particular amount of attention independent of other tasks (Willingham, 2007, p. 112).

Not knowing how much attention each task requires is not a problem, unless the divide causes a problem within the same task. When driving a car, it is not only necessary to maintain visual contact with the road, it is also necessary to operate various parts of the vehicle, such as indicators, lights or the horn. The process of driving a car is complex, but over time, each of the individual tasks involved are seamlessly performed with little to no extra attention necessary to remember doing them. The driver will not need to reallocate the bulk of his attention to activating the blinkers, reducing the attention required to stay on the appropriate side of the road.

What is the Relationship Between Attention and Cognition?

Attention requires the use of cognitive processes. Directing the attention to one thing in particular allows us to learn more about it. Depending on the kind of task the attention is focused on, determines which cognitive resource will be used. We can draw on a number of cognitive processes at once to discover more about something, and attention can shift from one resource to another whenever it is necessary to discover something new about a task.

For example, if I were judging wines, I would direct my attention to the scent of the wine, then the taste (fruity of smooth), the texture of the wine on the tongue, and as it is swallowed. I might also draw on memories of similar wines I tasted the previous year. This will require my full attention to recall my thoughts, and perhaps my vision to skim notes I made when I tasted last year’s wine. I might also tune my attention to others who are making remarks about the new wine. If too many people are speaking around me, this could prove difficult. However, they might also be discussing the new wine so I could use snippets of information from several auditory sources to determine whether the wine will be a popular product with potential new customers.


Willingham, D. T. (2007). Cognition: The thinking animal (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall

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