The Function of Attention

Attention has four functions, divided attention, vigilance and signal detection, search and selective attention. Selective attention and vigilance will be addressed as well as an exploration of how Guided Search Theory is supported by search and selective attention (Sternberg, 2003). Comparisons to research conducted by Shui-Shih and George Sperling and there use of guided search ties complementary functions together, in cognitive, attentional processing.

Attention is defined as being the means by which we actively process a limited amount of information from the enormous amount of information available through our senses, stored memories, and our other cognitive processes (Sternberg, 2003). This process is part of our peripheral nervous system and our nervous system. These systems are the two major divisions of the nervous system where we receive, process, and then respond, to information from the environment (Sternberg, 2003).

Selective attention described by Duncan in Cognitive Psychology, “that we are constantly making choices regarding the stimuli to which we will pay attention and the stimuli that we will ignore. By ignoring or at least deemphasizing some stimuli, we thereby highlight particularly salient stimuli. The concentrated focus of attention on particular informational stimuli enhances our ability to manipulate those stimuli for other cognitive processes, such as verbal comprehension or problem solving”.

Examples of selective attention in Cognitive Psychology are reading a book, or listening to a lecture while ignoring such stimuli as a nearby radio or television.

Vigilance, as defined by Sternberg, refers to a person’s ability to attend to a field of stimulation over a prolonged period, during which the person seeks to detect the appearance of a particular target stimulus of interest. Duncan explains that on many occasions, we vigilantly try to detect whether we did or did not sense a signal, a particular target of interest. Duncan continues to describe that through vigilant attention to detecting signals, we are primed to take speedy action when we do detect target stimuli.

Examples given, by Duncan are being in a submarine and watching for unusual sonar blips, being in a dark street and trying to detect unwelcome signals or sounds; or after an earthquake we may be wary of the smell of smoke or gas (Sternberg, 2004).

Guided Search Theory, the theory devised by Karl Cave and Jeremy Wolfe, in the book Cognitive Psychology, theorizes that all searches, whether feature searches or conjunction searches involve two consecutive stages.

Stage one is known as the parallel stage and it is where one simultaneously activates a mental representation of all the potential targets, based on their possession of each of the features of the target (Sternberg 2003).

The second stage of Guided Search Theory is known as the serial stage concluding that individuals sequentially evaluates each of the activated elements, according to the degree of activation, and, then., chooses the true targets from the activated elements (Sternberg, 2003).

From reading, Is there feature-based attentional selection in visual search?, Shui-Shih and George Sperling researched the effects of spatial location and, of, physical features as determinants of stimulus selection and visual search. Experiments conducted by Shih and Sperking investigated the possibility of selecting items on the basis of the physical features, size, or color. They found that there are two possible roles for attention. The first role environment presented that attention acts after odd items have been located. They further explain that, in processing, each individual item during the subsequent detection decision process; attention allocates more weight or more processing resources to those items that have the “to-be-attended” feature value. The second role found that attention acts before the odd item is located. Included in the second role is that the effect of an attention acts before the odd item is located. The affect of an attention is to facilitate locating those odd items that have the “to-be-attended feature value”. They finalize by concluding that attention adds to (or multiplies) the inherent strength of features, so that an unattended feature has (less strength) than the same feature in an attentionally neural state and concluded that through attended feature guided search processes localization to the likely location of the target.

From guided search theory and its application in experiments conducted by Shui and Sperling the relationship most easily distinguishable is that a feature guided search process is occurring. As a search is occurring, search itself becomes valid for integration into being one of the four main functions, of attention. Search defined by Duncan, in Cognitive Psychology, explains that we often engage in an active search for particular stimuli. Examples given are detecting smoke and seeking its source, or detecting that ones keys are missing and seeking their location. Search shows weight in its applicability in the process of locating stimuli (s). Additionally, Selective attention is described by Duncan in Cognitive Psychology, “that we are constantly making choices regarding the stimuli to which we will pay attention and the stimuli that we will ignore. As this is applied to the example of loosing our keys or for smoke detection our decision making process cognitively is working to help guide our attainment of the targeted stimuli.

The functions of search and selective attention both show a sequential, or parallel, process occurring. Research on guided search by Shui-Shih and George Sperling include both search and selective attention features that display a target detective and processing properties that reinforce the relevance of the guided search model. These two supporting functions of attention help to rationalize the dynamic features of our peripheral nervous system and complementary to our nervous system working together to find a target stimuli. Most research done on this type of processing is conducted visually combining a processing function, and measuring results. In, conclusion, guided search theory is composed of detecting a stimuli and then processing to a decision while including search and selective attention processing to occur in two separate stages in attainment of a “to-be-attended” stimuli.


Sternberg, R.J. (2003). Cognitive Psychology (3rd ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.

Shih, S., Sperling, G., (1996). Is There Feature-Based Attentional Selection in Visual Search?. Journal of Experimental Psychology, Vol. 22, 3. Retrieved October 19, 2005, from Ebscohost.