Attention is vital to our everyday lives. Some of us are better than others at paying attention, but regardless of skill, we all need it, whether we are learning in class or playing out in the field. In a world that values fast, immediate, instantaneous things, attention is slowly fading away, leaving us disoriented and scattered, left in a culture where it is easy to be left behind if you are not fast enough. Not enough of us pay attention in our everyday lives, even in the most simplest of tasks, failing to appreciate the beauty of life, successfully missing the important things, letting life slip out of our grasp. Through a better understanding of what attention is and how it can be used in mindfulness, I believe we can all live more fulfilling lives.
In psychology, attention refers to “the process of focusing conscious awareness, providing heightened sensitivity to a limited range of experience requiring more extensive information processing.” Simply put, attention is the ability to focus your awareness and senses on a particular task, leading to better experience and understanding. In order for this focusing to occur, you need an external stimulus, such as a sound, and an active goal, which is your response to or classification of it such a stimulus. For example, if you hear a dog bark, the barking is the external stimulus, and your realizing it is a dog who is barking is the active goal. The act of paying attention is no direct process but a combination of three processes (Posner, 1995): Orienting senses, controlling consciousness and voluntary behavior, and maintaining alertness. The first stage, orienting senses, is what happens when your sensory organs are directed to the source of a stimulation. When you hear a sound coming from the left, it is your left ear that will process it first, as it is oriented to the direction from which the sound came. Similarly, when you touch something, your hand comes into direct contact with the object. Depending on what sense the stimulus activates, your cortex suppress the other sensory organs while focusing on the active one: rarely do you need your eyes to smell something—it is the nose’s job to do that. When you orient your senses, you tend to use your superior colliculus, responsible for eye movement; the thalamus, responsible for activating specific sensory systems; and the parietal lobe, which is usually responsible for giving us a sense of direction. The next stage is controlling consciousness and voluntary behavior, in which your brains decide just how much you want to focus on a particular sense. Your eyes, when paying attention to something, can dilate or constrict depending on light, for example. Therefore, this second stage’s job is to control your response to stimuli and uses the frontal lobe and basal ganglia, known for their relation to controlling thoughts and actions. Third is maintaining alertness, which is indispensable for attention, for its job is to remain focused on a sense and ignore possible distractions. When you maintain alertness, you use different neural patterns in your reticular formation and frontal lobe. A type of attention known as selection is defined as “the essence of attention” (Rees et al., 1997). Selective attention is the ability to focus on something important and ignore others, whereas selective inattention is the ability to ignore something important and focus on others; the latter is used most often, either for good, as in diverting stress, or for bad, as in procrastinating.
Imagine you are at a party. You are sitting at a table with your friends, deep in conversation; the speakers are blasting music; there are people dancing; and there is another conversation across the room. Engrossed in the talk, you block out all other sound beside your own conversation, when all of a sudden, you hear your name being mentioned in the conversation across the room. The Cocktail Party Phenomenon, as it came to be called, was studied by Colin Cherry (1953), who found, startlingly, that not only is most information unconsciously processed, but some of this information, conscious or not, is prioritized above other information. A contemporary of his, Donald Broadbent, developed the Broadbent Filter Model (1958) to attempt to explain why this is so. Fascinated by air traffic controllers, whose job it is to receive multiple incoming messages at once and in mere seconds make quick judgments about which is most important, Broadbent began to study divided attention, “the capacity to split attention or cognitive resources between two or more tasks” (Craik et al., 1996), by using a method of testing called dichotic listening, where a subject puts on a pair of headphones and is played a different messages in each ear, simultaneously. Broadbent found that only one channel can be understood at a time, while the other is blocked out. He reasoned that there must be a theoretical, Y-shaped divergence in our minds that, when two inputs try to pass, lets one through and blocks access to the other. He said, further, that we have a short-term memory store that keeps track of these channels. The question remained, though: How does the brain decide which channel to let through? In another surprising conclusion, he found that in spoken language, meaning is understood after being processed; as such, content is not the decisive factor but quality of sound, like loudness, harshness, and from what sex it came. A loud, domineering voice, therefore, will be prioritized over a softer, nicer voice, even if the latter is more important in its message. Broadbent later went back and revised his model, stating priority is based on a combination of quality of the voice, content of the words, and prior experience; however, a later psychologist, Anne Treisman, said that during the Y-exchange, the second channel is not ignored, per se, but suppressed—this would explain the Cocktail Party Effect, because although you do not consciously hear your name, you still process it.
 Westen, Psychology: Brain, Mind, & Culture, 2nd ed., p. 395
 Ibid., pp. 395-6
 Id., pp. 397-8
For further reading: Psychology: Brain, Mind, & Culture 2nd ed. by Drew Westen (1999)
Essentials of Psychology by Kendra Cherry (2010)
The Psychology Book by Wade E. Pickren (2014)
The Psychology Book by DK (2012)
Some Experiments on the Recognition of Speech, with One and with Two Ears by Colin Cherry (1953)