Most psychologists regard attention as having three interrelated aspects, all of which are part of a single complex act. Attention is (1) an adjustment of the body and its sense organs, (2) clear and vivid consciousness, and (3) a set toward action. So let’s take a closer look at Shaping Psychology and Aspects of Attention.
Attention as a postural response. When we attend to something, we adjust the body and its sense organs to receive particular stimuli most readily. When the physician listens with his stethoscope for certain faint sounds in the chest of his patient, his postural adjustment is as complete as is humanly possible.
He may even close his eyes to shut out distracting visual stimulation. This is a familiar example of the way we select the significant stimuli from among the many to which our sense organs could respond.
Attention as clearness in consciousness. The method of introspection must be used to illustrate the second aspect of attention. Do you wear glasses? If so, were you noticing the rims just now? Probably not. Yet they are in your field of vision. Look for them and there they are. Is a clock ticking in the room where you are studying or a radio playing softly in the distance? If so, were the sounds vivid in your consciousness a few seconds ago? Probably not.
By contrast, if time had been of utmost importance in the situation, not only would you probably have been hearing the ticking but the clock, but it might actually have become subjectively louder and seemed to dominate your whole perceptual field. At any time, some things have the focus of our attention while others, despite equally intense physical stimuli, are on the periphery or not in our awareness at all. It is the direction of this focus that determines the threshold of effective stimulation.
Attention as a set toward action. Attention may also be regarded as a set, or readiness to respond in a particular way to some stimulus situation for which there are a variety of possible responses. For example, when the squad leader says “March” (command of execution), the response of his men will depend upon whether the prior command of preparation has been “Forward” or “To the rear.” In this sense, the set is a motivating condition influencing the direction of the reaction. Set is also an important variable in determining the speed of reaction.
The great Russian physiologist, Pavlov, whose work on conditioning has so influenced the development of American psychology, noted a postural response in his experimental animals similar to the postural aspect of attention in human beings. This he called the orienting or attitudinal reflex. He made no inferences concerning any related state of consciousness, however; like behaviorists since his time, his concern was with observable behavior. The orienting reflex, he noted, played a role in making the animal susceptible to conditioning unless it was either too great or too small, in which case it interfered with the progress of conditioning.
Underloading and Overloading of attention
If on the average, demands are made at a rate which is lower than the rate at which attention can be given, it would not be proper to describe the situation as an overload. Yet from time to time by chance alone, simultaneous demands may occur. Even so, as will be indicated shortly, it may be better to have occasional double demands than too few.
One point of view is that the central processor is always running at full speed if it running at all. Serious underloading results in the man’s finding other things to do with the leftover capacity. He may daydream or even doze, so as to lower the effective full-load capacity. Driving on a dull road for long periods often results in sleepiness, as does listening to a bore. You’re more likely to pay attention (awake now?) when the task is very challenging, but the probability of missing important signals also may rise.
Obviously, somewhere in between is best, and the problem is to find out just where. Here again, the queuing notion is helpful. One can of simultaneous demand is somewhere around one per minute. Vigilance studies suggest that such a signal rate helps to maintain human performance on which at a high level over long periods.
You may recall from your own experience how you expand or contract your perceptual field while your internal information processor continues to operate at its maximum capacity. There is, of course, the cocktail party effect: you’ve met somebody dull, so you expand your perception and sample other conversation impinging on your ears; you switch our attention mechanism among the continuous inputs you hear.
Similarly, when you are driving along the road with friends chattering merrily in the back seat, you can listen and carry on a conversation with them until the traffic gets dense. Then the demands on your central processor grow until you need every bit of its capacity; you try to pay attention only to the inputs that affect your driving task. Usually, these are visual and when have reached a limit, the demands from the audible signals from the back seat, become too much.
The demand on the attention mechanism also can be too low in the face of an unchanging external environment; a man tends to adapt to any steady stimulation. A light attracts attention, but if it stays on, it ceases to attract. If it blinks periodically, it attracts ‘attention until you have learned the rhythm’ (which is why it is harder to ignore the random blinking of the highway-construction neon-discharge warning lamps).