Foundations Of Cognitive Science


"Attention" is a term commonly used in education, psychiatry and psychology. The definition is often vague. Attention can be defined as an internal cognitive process by which one actively selects environmental information (ie. sensation) or actively processes information from internal sources (ie. visceral cues or other thought processes). In more general terms, attention can be defined as an ability to focus and maintain interest in a given task or idea, including managing distractions.

William James, a 19th century psychologist, explains attention as follows:

"Everyone knows what attention is. It is the taking possession by the mind in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought...It implies withdrawl from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state." (1890, p. 403)

Attention is important to psychologists because it is often considered a core cognitive process, a basis on which to study other cognitive processes; most importantly learning. DeGangi and Porges (1990) illustrate only "when a person is actively engaged in voluntary attention, functional purposeful activity and learning can occur." (p. 6) Poor attention is often a key symptom of behaviour disorders such as hyperactivity and learning disorders.


  1. DeGangi, G., & Porges, S. (1990). Neuroscience foundations of human performance. Rockville, MD: American Occupational Therapy Association.
  2. James, W. (1890). Principles of psychology. New York: Holt.

(Revised November 2009)