As I was looking back on this article to edit it, I could remember the general structure of the page, what images I choose to use, but not what the weather was like outside. If we aren’t paying attention to something we can’t remember it just as I couldn’t remember the weather on the day I originally wrote this.

Pay Attention

“Chris, pay attention”, my teacher yelled. Upon hearing this I perked up and flippantly replied, “I am” and recited what it was we were talking about. What my teachers wanted me to do was look like I was paying attention.

Attention is focusing or concentrating on a stimulus to the exclusion of other stimuli in the environment. It doesn’t require that we look at something if the information is being spoken because while our eyes are staring at our desks our minds can listen intently to what is being said.

Getting My Attention

Why did I suddenly perk up if my teacher had been talking all along? I was cued to do so.


Cues in an attentional sense are environmental stimuli that direct us to pay attention to something. Here it was my name, an endogenous cue. Endogenous cues don’t come from within like the name might suggest but require internal knowledge. If the teacher said “Beth, pay attention” I wouldn’t have stirred. I know that my name isn’t Beth so I don’t pay attention. When Chris is yelled though I focus in.

You have probably experienced something similar if you have been talking with a friend when someone suddenly else calls your name. Typically you would swivel to face the direction where the call came from. This phenomenon, called the cocktail party effect also explains our ability to pay attention to our friends in a cocktail party where the loud background noise fades into indistinct chatter while the conversation with your friend remains intelligible.


In contrast to endogenous cues, exogenous cues require no prior knowledge. These cues draw our attention like moths to a flame. Loud bangs, the flashing lights of emergency vehicles, or anything that you can’t help but notice. When an exogenous cue grabs out our attention we call it attentional capture. Our attention was literally captured. We didn’t choose to look we just did!

Overt V. Covert

Why was I able to recite what we had been going over in class if I didn’t seem to be paying attention? There is a difference between bodily focusing on a stimulus and mentally focusing on a stimulus called overt and covert orienting. In overt orienting, we bring our attention to whatever we are focusing on by moving our bodies or our eyes to maximize the sensory input we receive. Our eyes acting like spotlights and our ears like radar dishes picking up on every important snippet of information. This is what my teacher wanted me to do.

Covert orienting, on the other hand, is imperceptible to the observer, here we bring the spotlight of our mind to bear without moving our bodies. I might have my head in my hands, but I can follow carefully every word I hear without my mind wandering off. This is what I was doing and why I knew what was going on.

At other times my mind was wandering off and in college with a computer in front of my face I took this to another level.

You Can’t Actually Multitask

I thought I could multitask in college and with this belief in hand I set out to ace biology while grinding out gear in World of Warcraft. It didn’t work out to well. Not only did I end up dead at the hands of quilboar in The Barrens, I also didn’t get much out of my lectures.

Attention is a limited resource and it can’t be easily split if at all. Sure you can walk, talk, and chew gum, but if the actions you are trying to perform all require your attention you will end up switching between the activities not doing all of them simultaneously. This idea of splitting our attention is called divided attention and it is an important skill and a major cause of car accidents.

For example, an ER physician might need to focus their attention on incubating a patient then quickly switch to paying attention to their vitals. Despite their best efforts, they can’t give their attention to both simultaneously. It often seems like we are doing both at the same time though because we cycle our attention really quickly. The great news is that we don’t need to do both at the same time and switching often suffices.

Texting While Driving

The bad news switching is dangerous. It is estimated that texting while driving causes over 1.6 million car crashes every year. Why doesn’t talking with a passenger have the same negative implications?

Depending on what you are switching between switching is easier or harder. Talking with a passenger is typically a lot easier than texting on a tiny keyboard. Other factors…

Getting It Together

As you can imagine video games in the classroom didn’t help my freshman GPA. So determined to improve I set new goals and decided to swear off video games during lectures. Even still the urge to play games tugged at my mind while in class. Our ability to resist this pull is colloquially termed willpower and has an attentional component called executive attention. Executive attention is our ability to regulate our responses in conflict situations and put our attention towards actions that will help us accomplish our goals.

Realistically, I probably should have changed how I took notes and left my computer at home. Changing our environment to modify our behavior is usually a lot easier than changing ourselves to suit the environment.

Laser Focus

While we can’t multitask we can have laser like focus where the environment melts into nothingness and the only things that matters is what is in front of us. This power is actually two powers rolled into one. The first is selective attention where we choose what to focus on among all the other things in the environment. The second is directed attention where we sustain our attention on whatever we have selected.

Unfortunately for me my dog has superior powers of selective attention and directed attention when squirrels are around. Her whole worlds becomes consumed with the squirrel. Call her name nothing, wave treats in front of her face nothing. Pull her away and the body moves, but the eyes stay locked on that squirrel. If we waited there she would stare at the squirrel for hours mesmerized by its flicking tail.

Hiding In Plain Sight

Our ability to focus also restricts what we “see”. I use quotations here because sometimes we can literally see something and not realize it is there. We might be lost in thought and run into the person in front of us. Here we are in-attentionally blind we can see the person in front of us, but do not recognize they are there. Some pretty famous research was done on this idea go ahead and watch the video below to get a sense of how this phenomena works

Gorillas In The Midst

Primed and Ready to See What I Wanted

The heading title I chose, “Gorillas In The Midst” is designed to make you think, “Ugh, not another one of these gorilla videos” or “Gorillas what?”. This title act as an example of priming, where exposure to an idea or other environmental stimulus impacts what you pay attention to. In this case, I tried to plant the idea of a gorilla so you would start to look for them. While it probably helps you find the gorilla it doesn’t help with the dancing chicken.


All this talk about chicken has me thinking about chicken and waffles. Hold that thought, quick question:

Of the following which is a breakfast item?


According to research, you would have found the breakfast item, pancake, much faster than if I had started off talking about fences, oranges, or beaches. Here my aside about waffles is a prime specifically a positive prime, it increases your reaction time to finding a related idea. The crazy thing is that priming works even if we aren’t conscious of it. If I could have flashed a waffle on the screen faster than you can physiologically perceive it you still would have been quicker at picking out the word pancake.

You can also negatively prime people, causing their response to be slower because a response has to be inhibited in order to answer correctly. One of the most common examples used in psychological research is the Stroop test. The easiest way to demonstrate this idea is for you to give it a try.

Instructions: In each scenario say out loud the word as it is written?

Example: Black = Say “Black”, Blue = Say “Blue”, etc.


Pretty easy right, now try:


Harder and probably slower. Here we see the color yellow, this primes yellow and we have to now inhibit this thought to say black. The same is true for the rest of the mismatched colors and as result, our responses are slower.

Did You Change Something?

Sometimes noticing change is easy like the time your mom dyed her hair bright purple. Other times changes are subtle and hard to pick up on. And sometimes changes are super obvious but we just aren’t paying attention. Change blindness strikes in the last situation where we fail to notice a substantial and obvious change.

Isn’t this the same thing as inattentional blindness? Not quite in inattentional blindness, the change is unexpected like a gorilla, banana, and chicken walking into a group of basketball players. In change blindness, the change is obvious, but like a person changing the color of their tie while you aren’t watching or like the example below completely changing who you are talking to.

Getting Theoretical

Our eyes presumably received photons from the chicken in the first video, so what happened to that information? To be honest we aren’t 100% sure but we have theories. Three major ones to be precise. Before launching into an explanation of each theory let’s take a step back and look at what might be happening more generally.

Radio Dials and Coffee Filters

There are two prevailing ideas that explain what happened to this lost information. The first is that it is attenuated or turned down like turning down the volume on your car radio. If we turn down the radio low enough the din of the road or nearby construction makes it difficult to detect. It is still there and if we want we can focus on the radio and pick it out from among all the other noise.

The second is a filter where information is from reaching our conscious awareness. Here the information isn’t perceptible unless we focus on it. In the same way, that coffee grounds never make it into our mugs unless we remove the filter.

Regardless of whether we are filtering or attenuating information makes its way into our conscious awareness by the same steps. First, we must register the sensory experience such as the purple photons coming from your mom’s hair striking your retina and in turn sending a message to your brain. Then we must perceive and process that it’s your mom’s hair that is purple. Lastly, this information is brought into our conscious awareness where we can react and engage in other cognitive processes.



Broad Roads Bend Early

Where the theories begin to diverge is where filtering occurs or whether attenuating replaces filtering. The first of the three theories is Broadbent’s Early Selection Theory.

In this theory, all information is registered: your mom’s neon purple hair, the tree behind her, etc. From there information immediately gets filtered out on the basis of rudimentary physical characteristics. The tree is out not bright enough, the car not human shaped, etc. Whatever makes it through this filter then continues along as normal until it arrives at conscious awareness.



The Dutch Are Always Late

The second theory is Deutch and Deutch’s Late Selection Theory.

In this theory