From the moment we wake up we come across millions of stimuli but only some of them are grasped by our focused attention. The stimuli that we did not direct our attention to becomes an undifferentiated bundle that falls into oblivion.
Scientists continue to debate and experiment in order to pinpoint its exact inner workings. Nevertheless, attention is involved in the selective directedness of our mental lives, which is crucial for all sort of things – from practical to spiritual, for if there was no such directedness towards the world, we would be inert.
According to psychologist and philosopher William James, attention “is the taking possession of the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what may seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thoughts…It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others.”
Day to day, we switch our attention from one thing to another: from our thoughts to the car that is passing by, from a memory to the possible future, from listening to the radio and talking on the phone. Sometimes, we even put our attention at places that we don’t want to! The thing is, attention is the gate where we decide what things enter our mind, therefore I think it is worthwhile to take time, and think where we want to direct our mental activities.
The things that are relevant to us will catch our attention, which is for certain. But there is a risk involved in only focusing on things that are relevant, because we can shut ourselves from everything else. We do not see the world as it is, rather we see the world that we are looking for!
The amount of information that we can process is also limited; only but a fraction reaches our consciousness and it is generally the things that we pay attention to. One of the most popular takes on attention describes it as some sort of bottleneck. According to this view, attention is the necessary mechanism that allows us to attend to the large amount of sensual input delivered to our mental apparatus.
If we did not have this filter, the sheer volume of information would otherwise “overheat” our mind. Just like a computer, which has a certain amount of processing capabilities, our minds can only manage a certain amount of thoughts or details. There are other theories on attention, for example, the “Feature integration theory.”
According to this theory, attention gives rise to perception, and “binds” parallel channels of stimuli. For example, when we see and grab a cup, there are two different features of the cup that are being delivered to our visual and the tactile senses correspondingly. Attention is what allows us to take the tactile and visual information and merge it into one object; a “cup”.
We will not occupy ourselves with the etiology (i.e. the study of its origin) rather, we shall take a look into some of the important aspects of Attention.