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All About Attentio... wait what's that?

So now that I got the joke out of the way, what is attention? Are there different types? It just so happens there are different types of attention.

Attention Typologies

Top-down attention relates to how one (you) focus. It is what your brain in wanting to pay attention to. Opposite of this is bottom-up attention, which is when something unexpected get’s your attention. BAMMM! (got your attention, maybe before you even started reading this article).

In addition to these two types of attention there are three ways we, as humans, process “things.” First, when we process only one thing at a time it’s called serial processing.Parallel processing is exactly what it sounds like, processing multiple things at a time.

While these are two basic ways of processing, the one that really stuck out to me is called Automaticity Theory. This theory states that we can only process two things at the same time if one of them is a very automatic task. Interesting huh? That might be why I can’t drive and do homework at the same time.

Posner presents a different attention topology (types of attention). I put them in bullets below because it’s pretty simple.

  1. Alerting – general alertness, being alert/vigilant
  2. Orienting – (top-down bottom-up) accounts for and enables the shifting of focus, which can be triggered or volitional (controlled by will power)
  3. Executive – The self regulation of attention. Try to do something, but really tell yourself not too. Check Twitter, but say no because you need to do homework. This attention can be trained (best age to do is 4-7), and one’s future success have been shown to correlate more so to this than IQ.

Cognitive Load

So now that you know all about attention, how do we process that information and how much information is too much. The Limited Capacity Model describes the latter perfectly. Here are the stages:

  1. Sensory perception
  2. Selection – person’s cognitive load decides what they are going to pay attention to. Information processing stops here because people can’t pay attention to everything.
  3. Integration – information is integrated with person’s existing knowledge
  4. Storage – store information in short-term and then long-term memory
  5. Retrieval - getting the information back from the brain.

Throughout this process breakdown can be experienced at anytime. If too much information is presented in a defined space, then step 2 could fail. There are so many different ways, can you think of any?


I figure this is a long enough blog post, so I will just touch base on one last thing, Flow. Flow is the state where you are engrossed in something; it has your total attention and you seem to lose track of time. It seems to be related to how much a person enjoys their life.

Take me, for example. I am a web developer. Various times I have sat down at my computer to work on one of my side projects, and the next time I look at the clock it is six or so hours later. I didn’t eat, sleep, stray from my task, or even get up. I was in the zone. This is Flow, a central concept in positive psychology.


I am a life-long learner, adventure seeker, and front-end developer for @ExactTarget