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attention, covert attention, overt attention, split-attention

The most famous definition of attention is the one by William James:
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.
Attention is one of the most studied cognitive mechanisms because of its connection with memory, intelligence, emotion, learning, etc.
Studies have so far clarified that there may be numerous subjects of attention, mostly driven by evolutional and social reasons. The main subjects of attention for animals is the avoidance of a danger and the research of food. And who can deny this? Women are deeply concentrate on shopping, make-up, fighting cellulite and finding the right man; men are definitely drawn to women (read: sex), and women, and cars, and food, and sleep, and…women!!!

Other studies speculate about the fact that attention may be driven to different objects at the same time; they call this phenomenon “split attention”. We can as well call it the women’s secret! Every woman can cook the dinner, talk on the phone with a friend to catch the latest news and put the ultimate fashionable color on her nails, all at the same time!!

Another property of our mind is the possibility of concentrate on our thoughts without paying attention to anything else around us (Wikipedia); expert call it “mind-wandering” or “spontaneuos thought”. It was the debate and improvement in knowledge on this particular mental process that gave birth, for example, to the “Ulysses” by James Joyce. Moreover, mind-wandering is the favorite sport of pupils all over the world and above all it is what your husband does whenever you start talking to him!

It was William James again in 1890 that postulated the existence of two fundamental subtypes of attention: the involuntary and voluntary attention. Indicated also as overt and covert attention, recently they have been described as bottom-up and top-down attention (Egeth).
The bottom-up attention, as clearly described by Itti and Koch in a recent review, is a primitive mechanism that “biases the observer towards selective stimuli based on their saliency” (Itti 1490). This process produces overt actions, such as movement of eyes and head towards the stimulus attended.

The top-down attention is based on a cognitive process by which we voluntarily select the subject of our attention, deciding which item to pay attention to and which to ignore.

Evidences demonstrated that in visual scenes there are parts that elicits a strong response in the visual cortex; those are the subjects towards eyes and head are involuntarily biased (visual attention is drawn to visually salient items). But we can deliberately direct our attention to other parts of the visual fields with a voluntary effort. In other terms, the eyes of a girl will instinctively turn to stare at the handsome boy in front of her, but she can force herself to look in another direction!!! This phenomenon explains the cocktail party effect (Cherry): we can concentrate on one particular conversation in a very crowded room and avoid all the others (Wikipedia).

New insights in the field of top-down mechanisms demonstrate that “attention can be directed covertly as well as overtly” (Moore et al 674). For example, studies on primates shows that they can avoid looking directly at more dominant ones2, but they clearly attend covertly to them.

In conclusion, among the millions of stimuli coming in contact with our sensory system, only the stimuli that result to be “salient” (by involuntary or voluntary control) are able to fire the neurons implied in the attentive pathway. Seeing the complexity of the attention process, we are strongly recommended to select well what we want to concentrate on, in order not to waste such a wonderful network.
Which are the best selection criteria, that is the question!!!!

1 The over actions are under control of specific cerebral areas, such as oculomoror area, visual associative areas.
2 For primate, direct gaze is often a sign of aggression.

Cherry, E. C. “Some experiments on the recognition of speech, with one and with two ears.” Journal of Acoustic Society of America 25 (1953): 975-979.
Egeth, H. E. “Visual attention: control, representation and time course.” Annual Review Psichology 48 (1997): 269-297
Itti, Laurent. “A saliency-based search mechanism for overt and covert shift of visual attention.” Vision Research 40 (2000): 1489-1506.
James, William. Principles of Psychology. New York: H. Holt,1890.
Moore, Tirin. “Visuomotor origins of covert spatial attention” Neuron 40 (2003): 671-683.
“Attention” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. 18 0ct. 2006, 15:35 UTC. Wikimedia Foundation. 01 Nov. 2006
Published: 2007-04-28
Author: maria beatrice panico

About the author or the publisher
i am an Italian physician, trained in neurology, freelance writer. I can write about medicine and science and about my many interests, like arts, literature and history. I can also easily translate from English to Italian.

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