Home > Uncategorized > Does the theory of an attentional ‘spotlight’ really explain how people direct their attention?

Does the theory of an attentional ‘spotlight’ really explain how people direct their attention?

Hello all 🙂
Hope your exams went well.  Today, I’ve actually decided to take my idea from the essay I wrote in my Cognitive exam. I have, of course, not just copied it word for word, but I’m going to try and discuss it and make it more accessible and (for lack of a better word) bloggy.

I thought it would be a good idea to share my ideas from this question, and hopefully get feedback from other people who did the same essay, or even those who didn’t and just want to share.

So, first of all, I’m going to explain a little about the theory of attentional ‘spotlight’.  With all the things that are going on in our environment around us, it would be impossible to try and process all of it, and this is where the idea of an attention spotlight came from.

It was first suggested by Posner, Snyder and Davidson in 1980.  Posner theorised that our attention was like a spotlight which can be moved around and focused on a single target.

Cueing experiments were used to get evidence to support the theory.  In cueing experiments, participants are asked to respond as quickly as they can to a stimulus, which may be a light coming on, for example.  The light would be to the right or left of a central fixation point and might be preceded by a cue.  So, an arrow might come on screen telling the participant which way they should direct their attention.

The results showed that, as you would expect, people responded faster if they’d been told before hand which way to direct their attention.  Participants responded slowest if they’d been tricked into directing their attention the wrong way.  Ie. if the arrow pointed to the left, but light actually showed up on the right.

In 1990, Posner and Peterson built on this idea and proposed that focusing attention occurs in 3 stages:

  1. Attention would be disengaged, or taken away, from where it was currently focused.
  2. Attention would physically shift from one location to another.
  3. Attention would be engaged onto the new thing.
A criticism of this, though, is that it suggests that eyes must be constantly moving overtly in order for attention to be shifted.  Surely attention can be moved from one thing to another covertly while the eyes remain still?
Think about when someone is driving.  Their eyes remain on the road, but they might be shifting their attention a lot, from what to have for dinner to what they need to do tomorrow.
In 1986, Eriksen and St. James elaborated on the spotlight theory and proposed that attention is more like a ‘zoom lens’.  That instead of it being a single beam of light in which attention is limited to a set size or spatial focus, that people could increase or decrease their attentional focus.  Ie. zoom in or out.
However, further research has questioned several aspects of these theories.  Most importantly, several studies have shown that attention can be split between more than one location.  This doesn’t fit with the idea of a single attentional beam or lens.
In my opinion, even though there have been criticims of the spotlight theory, and it doesn’t seem to fully explain how people direct their attention, it was still a very important theory in that it provided a useful insight into how our attention can move independently of our eyes.  Also, further research that has been done has provided the basis for more theoretical explanations of attention and has shed light on how complex the cognitive processes involved in attention are.
So, that’s me done for the time being.  Please share the other ideas you may have had from doing this essay or may just have because you’re very clever people 🙂
Thanks for reading.

http://www.simplypsychology.org/visual-attention.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attentional_shift#Three_stages_of_attention_orienting

http://www.psychologypracticals.com/html/details.asp?id=21

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. March 12, 2012 at 12:38 pm

    Good blog! I also did this essay in the cognitive exam and think that the attentional spotlight is the best metaphor to describe how our attention moves around the visual field. From posner’s research we could conclude that our attention is like a virtual eye roaming around our visual field and picking out the things it’s interested in. His evidence confirms the everyday experience we have of fixing our gaze yet still being able to ‘look around’ (Matlin, 2005). For example, a parent ‘keeping an eye’ on their child yet still looking at the person they’re talking to. The importance of the attentional spotlight is made all the more obvious by people who suffer from hemispatial neglect. Technically, both eyes are physically functioning and they can see everything on the neglected side, but just don’t notice anything in this region. It’s as if the spotlight cannot travel over to the neglected side? However, Mcglincey-Berroth et al found that patients with hemi-spatial neglect had been found to process stimuli from their neglected side.

    • March 14, 2012 at 5:49 pm

      wow! We seemed to have a lot of the same ideas in our essays (great minds, eh ;))
      I also included the example of a mother watching her children, and the hemispatial neglect example. I didn’t want to include everything because I thought it would be too long for a blog, but other research I found expanded on the ideas to do with covertly shifting attention.
      Research was carried out by examining brain damaged patients. These studies demonstrated that people who were unable to exert eye movements voluntarily were still able to shift attention covertly. This is showing that eye movement is not necessarily needed to shift attention.
      Furthermore, research using brain imaging paradigms have indicated that activity in brain areas involved in overt attention shifts, as compared to covert attention shifts, differ. Importantly though, it has been shown that there is overlap in some brain regions being activated in relation to both processes which suggests that there are some shared neural networks (Beauchamp et al 2001; Posner & Cohen, 1984).

  2. chantelle Manjengwa
    March 14, 2012 at 4:24 pm

    Cool blog:) I think the attentional spotlight idea really does explain how we attend to things in our environment at a very simply level. Muller and Hubner, supported the theory and even suggested that the attentional spotlight can be shaped like a doughnut. That is one can ignore the center of their spotlight and only focus there attention on the boundaries of it. For example, lets take the example used above, the mother could have both her friend and child in her beam of spotlight. The friend in the center of the beam of spotlight and the child near the boundaries of the beam of spotlight, she can then every now and again ignore her friend and focus on her child.
    http://pss.sagepub.com/content/13/2/119.full.pdf+html

  3. March 14, 2012 at 4:29 pm

    Cool blog:) I think the attentional spotlight idea really does explain how we attend to things in our environment at a very simply level. Muller and Hubner, supported the theory and even suggested that the attentional spotlight can be shaped like a doughnut. That is one can ignore the center of their spotlight and only focus there attention on the boundaries of it. For example, lets take the example used above, the mother could have both her friend and child in her beam of spotlight. The friend in the center of the beam of spotlight and the child near the boundaries of the beam of spotlight, she can then every now and again ignore her friend and focus on her child.
    http://pss.sagepub.com/content/13/2/119.full.pdf+html

    • March 14, 2012 at 5:36 pm

      did you really just copy and paste this from chantelle? :/

      • March 14, 2012 at 10:36 pm

        lol i am chantelle 🙂

  4. March 15, 2012 at 12:21 pm

    Oh! I’m so sorry chantelle! It came up with 2 different names, I thought someone was very obviously cheating haha x

  5. September 13, 2014 at 1:09 am

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  6. September 17, 2014 at 9:09 am

    Hello, yup this post is in fact pleasant and I have learned lot
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  1. March 15, 2012 at 12:09 am

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