What is the history of the study of attention?

In 1862, attention’s study inadvertently snowballed into: 1. the entire field of experimental psychology and 2. psychology as an academic pursuit. In Liepzig, Germany, Wilhelm Wundt set up an experiment with a machine he called “the thought meter”, and he used said machine to measure the time it took for each subject to switch attention between stimuli presented. The result Wundt measured was that it took an average of 1/10th of a second for a person to switch attention from one stimulus to another. (Hergenhahn, 2009, p. 262) Wundt was so excited by this physical evidence of an internal process that he continued experimenting and writing results until in 1875, Liepzig University granted him the opportunity to develop the first psychology curriculum (while continuing with experimentation), and in 1879, he opened the world’s first experimental psychology lab. (Hergenhahn, 2009, p. 265) Wundt’s experiments with attention led him to believe that an individual chooses what stimulus to attend (to focus on) in a given moment and that only one item at a time can be attended; he called this voluntarism. (Hergenhahn, 2009, p. 264)

In 1890, Father of American Psychology, William James, wrote in his book Principles of Psychology, “Millions of items…are present to my senses which never properly enter my experience. Why? Because they have no interest for me. My experience is what I agree to tend to…. 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… It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others.” (Goldstein, 2010, p. 135)

How has the definition changed over time?

Since the advent of the experimental psychology lab and Wundt’s feat of taking psychology into the realm of science (whereas before it had been a purely philosophical study), scientists and psychologists have uncovered information about the body and the mind that has answered some questions about how and why we pay attention to various stimuli within the environments we inhabit.

For people who see, vision plays a huge role in what we attend, and vision works something like this: light, which is energy inclusive of all colors, enters the eye, passing through both the cornea (which focuses the light) and the pupil (which controls the magnitude of light) before reaching the retina, whose photoreceptor cells (rods and cones), convert light into messages (neurotransmitters), which are relayed through the optic nerve into the brain. While each part of the anatomy of the eye is important to vision and, by extension, to attention, perhaps the key aspect in regard to attention is the fovea (home of the photoreceptor cells called cones). Cones “provide color vision, black and white vision, high acuity, [and] the ability to discern fine detail”. Thus, when we want to focus on a specific stimulus within our environment, we look at it directly, ensuring its capture on the fovea. (Murray, n.d.)

Two ways in which attention has been classified are by the ways we use it in daily life: divided attention (attending multiple stimuli simultaneously) and selective attention (focusing on specific items, one at a time). When we use selective attention, when we focus our eyes on specific items, captured by the fovea, the attended items are more thoroughly processed when the information passes through the optic nerve into the cortex (Goldstein, 2010, p. 134)

Anne Treisman’s work on attention (and perception), starting in the 1980’s and continuing through today, has kept the ball rolling in terms of psychology’s interest in attention. ("Anne Treisman", 2011) Her key contribution to our discussion is her Feature Integration Theory, in which she proposes three stages that make up our experiences of attention and perception: preattentive stage (in which features and salience of an object are taken in and processed, affecting our decision to attend), focused attention stage (in which features are merged into one object), and perception. In other words, we notice first the salient features (shapes, colors, brightness, contrast, orientation) before we choose to attend to an object displaying features we find interesting, and following the decision to attend the object, we go through the process of identifying the object, hence Feature Integration Theory. (“Feature Integration Theory”, n.d.) Yehoshua Tsal (1989) argued that the division of attention into two stages does not apply to feature perception and integration. Briand and Klein (1989) argued that Tsal's arguments are basically a question of semantics and that Feature Integration Theory is valid in regard to the two stages of attention and their relationships to perception and integration. Other researchers have gone back and forth about Feature Integration Theory (Galotti, Fernandes, Fugelsang, and Stolz, 2010)
and it remains central to the current curricula on attention.

Treisman's Attenuation Theory deals with selective attention in listening and says that we attend the most relevant source of sound, while sort of "turning down" other sounds, so that the attended source is processed, and other sounds can be attended if necessary. Mcleod (2008) says that one problem with this theory is that "the nature of the attenuation process has never been precisely specified". (Mcleod, 2008)

Psychologists and neuroscientists continue to unfold the science behind attention. A Google search of “attention in cognitive psychology” will result in thousands of journal articles and webpages. Research on attention seems to capture the attention of laypeople and researchers alike; I am certainly happily attending.

-Tessie Martinez