A Brief Exploration into Human Attention


So recently I made a bid on a project that was proposed on elance.com that I thought was particularly interesting. elance logo

The client was looking for writers to blog about Psychology. Especially psychology that can have practical real-world benefits. A more detailed description can be found on the proposal. But long story, short the client is looking for writers/bloggers who can write interesting, thought-provoking, and conversation-inducing articles.

So, the main focus of today’s post is going to be about the human attention span.

I’m writing an article on attention because I believe it’s one of the most applicable sub-topics of psychology in the sense that it has a lot very legitimate benefits to corporations and individuals to have at least a basic understanding of how attention actually functions in any given person.

Anyway, enough with the explanations and justifications for this article. Let’s get started with…


The Information-Processing Theory of Attention

This is not just one theory of attention, but rather an umbrella category of several theories of how human attention works.

Essentially, the common link between all Information-Processing theories is that the human mind can only process or focus, if you will, on a limited quantity of information at any given time. The more important that your brain decides a certain piece of information is, the more concentration it’ll give to it. Additionally, information can be either internal, or endogenous, information such as what you emotions you’re feeling at the moment, or it can be external, or exogenous, information like a car suddenly flashing its brights at you.

A simple analogy would be like that of a computer processor. Just like how your computer has to process internal information, like making sure that all Windows/MacOS processes are running as they should be, while simultaneously dedicating itself to external user-input like streaming a video on Youtube. The more important that the process is, the more processing power will be devoted to that task. computer

Now that sounds all fine and dandy, but in the real-world this can get quite messy. As your brain and the world around you basically bombard you with loads of data that your brain just simply couldn’t process all at once. And because of that there are multiple theories all attempting to explain a rather complex process.

Likewise, I will only focus on one sub-theory for this post. As trying to tackle them all on in a single blog post would be simply chewing off more than I can swallow.

Specifically, I want to cover the…

Early-Stage Attentional Selection Theory of David Broadbent

Without giving too much of a history lesson, I will mention that this theory was proposed by British Psychologist David Broadbent; who speculated that the human brain screens and filters information early on during the processing portion of your sensory perception.

In layman’s terms, this means that your brain basically says “Go” or “No-Go” right away when you perceive something in your environment.

For example, you’re walking around on the streets and you notice a dog tied to a light post coming up on your path. You take note of it, because your brain gave that bit of information a “Go” or ‘green light’. Meanwhile, you suddenly hearing someone talking behind you and you turn around to notice that it’s someone who just walked by you talking on the phone. You didn’t notice him at first because your brain deemed that information unworthy of your attention, therefore, your brain initially gave the talking guy a “No-Go” or ‘red light’.

Traffic Light

And that’s the basic jist of Broadbent’s theory. He argued that there was a bottleneck right after the sensory store, the part of your brain that stores all information, initially, perceived by your senses.

There’s been a lot of evidence done in empirical experiments that concurred with his conclusion. The most notable of these was the dichotic listening experiment. Which I’ll go over really quickly right now.

Dichotic Listening

Basically, what happened here was that another British Psychologist, E. Collin Cherry, took a bunch of test subjects (technically, participants is the proper term) and made them listen to two different sound sources through a pair of headphones. The subjects would put on a pair of headphones, and the experimenter would play through a pre-defined recording for each ear. Each ear was given a different sound to listen to at the same time, and both sides received a different message. Headphones

For example, one ear would hear a male voice saying something like “The sky is blue” while the other would get maybe a female voice saying “I like bacon”. Note that I just randomly made up those two phrases. I’m actually pretty sure the real experiment consisted of something different.

Anyway, the subject was asked to completely focus on one ear only and disregard the other.

And the result was that all subjects had little, if any, recollection of what was said in the ear that they weren’t supposed to listen to. In fact, pretty much nobody even noticed if the opposite ear had changed genders, languages, or even if the message was all of a sudden switched to be played in reverse.

This lends credibility to Broadbent’s original theory, which was that, there was indeed a bottleneck immediately after perceiving information from the senses. The subjects certainly heard what the other ear was saying, but they don’t remember it at all. Meaning that the brain had taken a look over the ‘less-valuable’ data and decided to skip it or ‘block it’ if you will.

So that’s all fine and dandy. And it might even be interesting to you, but “…what does it matter to me in the real world?” you ask.

The WorldPractical Application(s)

Simple, the take-home message is this. That you can’t multi-task!

The implications of this are actually pretty wide-ranging.

Think about it for a second. How many times have you filled a job application or interviewed with a company where one of the job requirements was:

“…an ability to multi-task efficiently…“?

Well, that’s a false notion, and it’s one that more and more companies and people in general are starting to realize is nothing more than a circus style hurdle that employers use to supposedly find the best candidate. When in reality, all they’ve managed to do is to eliminate the guy who’s being honest during the interview vs. the guy who has a particular knack for lying in a convincing manner.

The end-result is always the same, people can’t multi-task. And making this one of the job requirements only leads to the very plausible outcome that you, as an employer, will end up with sociopath liar who managed to trick HR into thinking that he’s the one for the job. Job Interview

Come a few weeks or months later he’s probably going to be let go or will simply sit there at work not really contributing in a significant manner. While the ten other candidates that you passed on could’ve easily out-performed this guy.

Anyway, this post is starting to get rather long-winded now, and I don’t want to exhaust your attention (no pun intended). So I’ll end it here.

Lastly, as always, thank you very much for reading this and I hope you enjoyed it as much as I have writing it. Please remember to comment, like, follow, subscribe, up-vote, and share with all your friends and family.


Until next time,






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