selective attention

As we all know: attention is a limited resource. Selective attention allows us to tune out unimportant details and focus on what really matters. An extremely important skill. We can distinguish two kinds of selective attention. Selective visual attention and selective auditory attention. What are they and how do they work?

So what is selective attention? An example: do you recognize this? You are in the pub talking to a friend. Loud music is playing and all the people around you are talking too. The television in the background is showing a soccer match with the sound on. Meanwhile the bartender is washing the beer glasses in the sink, banging them against each other.

Somehow you are able to tune out the irrelevant sounds and focus on the story that your mate is sharing. How is this possible? This is an example of selective attention. Selective attention is the process of focusing on a particular object in the environment for a certain period of time.

Attention is a limited resource and selective attention allows us to tune out unimportant details and focus on what really matters

This is an extremely important skill. Just think about what would happen if all sensory information would just keep coming in and we would not be able to focus our attention on things that need our attention.

We can distinguish two kinds of selective attention. Selective visual attention and selective auditory attention

Selective visual attention – the spotlight effect

Some people believe that visual attention works similar to that of a spotlight. This spotlight has a focal point in which we see things clearly. The area surrounding the focal point – we call the fringe – is still visible but not clear. The area outside of the fringe is known as the margin and can barely be seen. This is called the spotlight effect.

Selective auditory attention – the cocktail party effect

This is the example I started with of talking to a friend in the pub. Some people call this the ‘cocktail party effect’. When research was done on this they found out that – when two auditory messages were presented to us at the same time – we can only really follow one. Somehow our minds decide what message we pick. To be able to do that it considers things like: color, loudness, direction and pitch.

you hear someone nearby that is talking to other people mentioning your name

Now imagine you are in the pub again, talking to your friend. You are listening to his story, ignoring all the other sounds, when suddenly you hear someone nearby that is talking to other people mentioning your name. That grabs your attention and you start following that conversation, completely forgetting your friend’s story.

What happened? Somehow, the filter we use to focus our attention was still ‘listening’ in the background for other things that may be important. When it heard your name it immediately shifted your focus to the origin of the sound.

When you are doing something that needs your attention: mute your phone

I believe this is similar to how our modern digital distractions work. The ping or buzz of our smartphone is that person suddenly mentioning your name in the loud pub. You completely lose your attention for the thing you were doing and shift it to your phone that is literally calling your name.

Stop your phone from calling your name

What can we do to prevent this from happening? Well, the only thing that really helps is to (temporarily) completely mute your phone. When you are doing something important, like having dinner with your family, driving in your car or work that needs focus, temporarily turn off all notifications. Just stop it from calling your name. It’s that simple!

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