Cognitive Psychology-Improvement of Attention
Cognitive psychology forms a part of the constituent study sections that constitute studies in psychology. This sub-discipline of psychology is concerned with the exploration of mental processes which are internal in nature. The major areas of concern in cognitive psychology include memory, perception, speech, attention and the process of formulating solutions to problems via mental engagements. The method is quite different from other psychological studies such as Freudian psychology which is more symbol oriented. It allows the application of scientific methods in its studies and rejects the use of introspection in its studies. The study of cognitive psychology appreciates the existence of mental states that are internal in nature such as motivation, desire and belief. The use empirical approaches in cognitive psychology as well as the recognition of internal mental states have attracted criticism in the past on the possibility of creating contradiction. This paper highlights the phenomenon of attention that is reviewed under a field of study born out of cognitive psychology-cognitive neuroscience. The paper highlights various filter and attention theories that have been put forth as well as the methods that can be applied in real situations to improve attention in human.
Attention is the capacity to focus all or a bigger part of the mental efforts to some specific object or subject while at the same time excluding all other types of stimuli that may distract the focus. Attention is alternatively known as the allocation of mental capacity to specific stimuli within one’s environment. Attention is one of the major study areas in both cognitive psychology and neuroscience. The studies in these areas have been mainly focused on education and psychology. Humans are bombarded with a number of stimuli that are generated from their surroundings, and they have to draw their focus and put it into one aspect through attention. Attention, like most natural human mental processes can be enhanced through various means. The creation of an attentive state is usually impeded by the occurrence of various deterrents such as interruptions from other stimuli within the environment.
Therefore, in order to improve attention these background distractions should be eliminated so that the concerned party may be able to make better focus. Through Treisman’s (1960) and Broadbent’s theory (1958) there is a clear implication that the human perception experiences many types of stimuli and it thus has to offer selective priority to incoming stimuli that is taken to be necessary while attenuating that which is not (Anonymous, 1994) . The cognitive process of selecting between various sources of stimuli in order to keep focus on one of the stimuli sources actually does reduce the capacity to concentrate or be attentive. Broadbent’s postulation implies that unattended messages are filtered first and these are not allowed in. On the other hand, Treisman’s model stipulates that the messages, both attended and unattended are let in, however; the unattended message gets attenuated with further processing. Therefore, leaving focus and attention to the incoming stimuli that is not attenuated. The process of attenuation of less important stimuli or filtering actually lowers the attention capacity. If these extra stimuli sources were eliminated the entity under highlight will be able to have better attention, due to reduced distractions. A good example would be the elimination of visual or auditory distractions such as music from the students’ classes or libraries so as to enable them to have better and greater attentiveness (Anonymous, 1994).
Another important aspect of attention creation lies within one of the bottleneck theories-postulated by Treisman. The theory postulates that incoming messages are firstly filtered on the basis of their sources. An example would be a student in a noisy classroom where a lecture is being delivered-the student is likely to concentrate on the teacher’s instructions and teachings by filtering the rest of the noise from the rest of the classroom However, the rest of the filtered messages may remain unattended but divided and filtered according to thresholds of significance. This may be exemplified in the student’s example by the act of one student mentioning the name of the subject under highlight. The subject whose name is mentioned is likely to take his focus off the teacher and on to the student that calls his name. This shows that the previously filtered stimuli had been attenuated due to its level of threshold or importance-the student had neglected the noise from fellow students in order to listen to the teacher (Anonymous, 1994). However, when his name is called his attention shifts from the teacher to the student. In view of this double filter theory; attention can be improved if the threshold of the message that is delivered is shifted high up the levels of the rest of the stimuli. Therefore, in order to catch someone’ attention while communicating to them, one may occasionally call their names in order to catch or attract their attention. Calling the name of a person whom one is communicating with can lead to improvement of attention because this shifts the threshold.
The attention restoration theory postulated by Kaplan and Rachel can also offer insight into how attention can be improved. The theory postulates that people who need to focus on a certain aspect in their environment need to have a directed attention that actively inhibits distractions to attention and spares part of the cognitive processes for active use within the area of focus. As per the theory, after a certain period of directed attention people start experiencing “directed attention fatigue” some sort of boredom or tiredness that results from actively focusing on a specific element or stimuli in the environment. As a result, these people become irritable and cannot effectively perform their work. According to Kaplan and Rachel the lost attention may be recovered by changing the person’s engagement on to another task, specifically one that requires “effortless attention” so as to restore his or her directed attention at a later stage (Rome & Paletta, 2007). The two state that the changing of tasks can be replaced by an exposure to various environments that are natural or beautiful such as parks, waterfalls or rivers. The effortless attention created by this different exposure helps restore attention (Rome & Paletta, 2007). The theory asserts that the expenditure of more time in nature or beautiful natural scenery helps restore attention and active concentration. Perhaps this explains the invigoration that characterizes all working people returning from holidays and tours. This could be applied by offering employees or students holidays or days off where they are allowed to visit natural sceneries such as parks so as to return with better focus on their studies or the work.
The “signal detection theory” is also another important stipulation that helps explain the phenomenon of attention. The theory’s assertions state that there are various determinants which influence how a system can detect signals as well as the positioning of the thresholds to the related signals. The theory offers an explanation on how the changes of the threshold may affect the discernment capability. This often shows how well the system is adapted to that particular task. In humans there are various factors that affect the threshold that a person may apply in the detection of any stimuli. The influencing factors may include expectations, experience, and physiological states such as fatigue. This example on how attention may be affected through the variation of the threshold can be exemplified by one sentry, at different times-in a peaceful time and in a war zone in times of combat. It is highly likely that the sentry in a war zone at war time will detect faint stimuli in its environs than the same sentry during a time of no war. Therefore, attention can be enhanced through rising of the threshold of perception. This can be achieved through actually creating an emphasis on the subjects involved by verbally calling on their attention whenever a message to be communicated is deemed highly significant. Reduction of fatigue through offering rest can help actually in the improvement of attention as the thresholds shift (Rome & Paletta, 2007).
The cause and effect theories on attention also offer a solution to the effort of attention creation and sustenance. The “effect theories” on attention assert that attention is a product of the act of information processing. In this theory it is held that attention is attracted and maintained after the information processed is deemed to be valuable or of significance (Fernandez-Duque & Johnson, 2002). Thus implying that attention is likely to be shifted or switched off if a particular stimulus is received and the information processing phase shows that there is little significance on any further focused attention. This theory can be of paramount importance in the creation of attention. In order to create attention, the person delivering a message has to make an initial impression that will attract the audience’s attention. The initial catchy message or phrase used can be processed, and if found interesting the audience can focus their attention in order to get more of what is being said due to the initial impression. This is the main reason behind the famous tactic of starting of a presentation with a catchy phrase or joke meant to attract the attention of the listeners (Fernandez-Duque & Johnson, 2002).
Anonymous, (1994) Early and late selection theories of attention, retrieved on 5th December, 2010 from http://www.epistemics.co.uk/staff/nmilton/papers/attention.htm
Fernandez-Duque, D. and Johnson, L. M. (2002) Cause and effect theories of attention: the role of conceptual metaphors; The Journal of Review of General Psychology, volume number 6, issue number 2, pp 153-165.
Rome, E. and Paletta, L. (2007) Attention in cognitive systems: theories and systems from an interdisciplinary viewpoint ; 4th International Workshop on Attention in Cognitive Systems, WAPCV 2007, Hyderabad, India, January 8, 2007 : revised selected papers, Springer Publishers.