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A Glossary of Attention

A Glossary of Attention

What is Attention?

It has been presumed that human beings do not have an infinite capacity to attend to everything and much of the research in this field has been devoted to discerning which factors influence attention and to understanding the neural mechanisms that are involved in the selective processing of information (APA Dictionary of Psychology).

Then most scientists, neuroscientists, and psychologists agree that attention is “a state in which cognitive resources are focused on certain aspects of the environment rather than on others and the central nervous system is in a state of readiness to respond to stimuli (APA – Dictionary of Psychology).”

An easier definition of attention could be “the concentration of awareness on some phenomenon to the exclusion of other stimuli”. Some sociologists could say that attention is the awareness of the here and now in a focal and perceptive way. Attention determines the content of consciousness and influences the quality of conscious experience. Others say that attention also determines and influences unconscious experience. “Attention is the behavior a person uses to focus the senses, from sight to hearing and even smell (Attention: Definition and Examples | FRA – Transportation).” And attention to information that is not important is called distraction.

It is considered basic because it is essential for the correct functioning of higher-order psychological processes such as learning, by receiving, selecting, assimilating, and interpreting stimuli that will later be encoded and stored in an organized manner in memory.

In our daily life we direct our attention all the time in different ways, for example when people drive, they must pay attention to signals or people crossing the road. But attention can also be captured in a very short time, for example when people run into the metro station, even unconsciously, they are stimulated by commercials placed at certain points and studied in such a way as to captivate the public and generate interest and/or desire. This is the so-called “visual marketing”, it is the strategic use of designs, symbols, colors, and pictures to effectively communicate a message and get people to pay attention to it.

Attention is multidimensional because it is composed of five separate levels: focused attention, sustained attention, selective attention, alternating attention, and divided attention, according to the clinical model of attention by Sohlberg and Mateer. The different levels are organized hierarchically so that the proper functioning of the higher levels depends on the proper functioning of the lower and less complex levels.


>>> Discover How Poor Attention and Engagement can lead a Marketing Campaign to Failure

The Origins of Attention

The study of attention has been of interest to the field of psychology since its earliest days, many ideas about attention can be traced to philosophers in the 18th and 19th centuries, preceding the foundation of the field of psychology.

But we must look at the past…


First steps to Attention studies


The topic of attention was originally discussed by philosophers, among the issues considered were the role of attention on conscious awareness and thought, and whether attention was directed voluntarily or involuntarily toward objects or events (Applied History of Psychology/Research on Attention). One example comes from Joan Luis Vives (1492-1540) who “…recognized the role of attention in forming memories (11.2: History of Attention – Social Sci LibreTexts). Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716) introduced the concept of apperception, which refers to an act that is necessary for an individual to become conscious of a perceptual event. He noted that without apperception, the information does not enter conscious awareness. Leibniz says “Attention is a determination of the soul to know something in preference to other things (11.2: History of Attention – Social Sci LibreTexts).”

In summary, many philosophers gave attention to a central role in perception and thinking. They introduced several important issues, such as the extent to which attention is directed automatically or intentionally.


Modern Theories and Cognitive Psychology


Wilhelm Wundt, who established the first laboratory devoted to psychological research in 1879, was responsible for introducing the study of attention to psychology (Applied History of Psychology/Research on Attention). In addition, the relation between attention and perception was one of the first topics to be studied in experimental psychology. Wundt held that attention was an inner activity that caused ideas to be present to differing degrees in consciousness (11.2: History of Attention – Social Sci LibreTexts). He distinguished between perception, which was the entry into the field of attention, and apperception, which was responsible for entry into the inner focus. His assumption was “…that the focus of attention could narrow or widen (Applied History of Psychology/Research on Attention).” This view has also enjoyed popularity in recent years.

In his famous Principles of Psychology (1980), William James asserted that “the faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will.” According to James (1890), “It is taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought (How Psychologists Define Attention – Verywell Mind).” Focalization, concentration, and consciousness are of their essence. Moreover, according to James, the immediate effects of attention are to make us perceive, conceive, distinguish, and remember, better than we otherwise could.

James’s definition also mentions clearness, which Titchener viewed as the central aspect of attention (11.2: History of Attention – Social Sci LibreTexts). Pillsbury agreed with Titchener, indicating, “the essence of attention as a conscious process is an increase in the clearness of one idea or a group of ideas at the expense of others. Researchers at the beginning of the 20th century debated how this increased clearness is obtained (11.2: History of Attention – Social Sci LibreTexts).

In summary, around 1860, the philosophical approach dominated the study of psychology in general and attention especially. “During the period from 1980 to 1909, the study of attention was transformed, as was the field of psychology as a whole, to one of scientific inquiry with emphasis on experimental investigations (11.2: History of Attention – Social Sci LibreTexts). However, given that behaviorism came to dominate psychology in the next period, at least in the United States, the study of attentional mechanisms was largely delayed until the middle of the 20th century (Applied History of Psychology/History of Research on Attention).

The period from 1950 to 1974 saw a revival of interest in the characterization of human information processing. Research on attention during this period was characterized by an interplay between technical applications and theory. In the early 1970s, there was a shift from studying attention mainly with auditory tasks to studying it mainly with visual tasks. A view that regards attention as a limited-capacity resource that can be directed toward various processes became popular (11.2: History of Attention – Social Sci LibreTexts).

Daniel Kahneman’s (1973) model is the most well-known of these unitary capacity or resource theories (11.2: History of Attention – Social Sci LibreTexts) Kahneman described attention as a reservoir of mental energy from which resources are drawn to meet situational attentional demands for task processing. He then argued that mental effort reflects variations in processing demands (Capacity Model – an overview | ScienceDirect Topics). According to Kahneman’s theory, every instance of attention is an instance of effort, and every instance of effort is an instance of attention. An example from this theory is that a person reading a book will surely look in the other direction, in a natural process, if a doorbell rings during that time. “Kahneman also stated that it is a very subjective process that also depends on the reflex action of an individual.” (“Kahneman’s Capacity Model of Attention”) He distinguished system 1 (implicit and automatic) which is immediate, instinctive and unconscious; and system 2 (explicit and based on reflection) which is controlled, flexible and serial.

LeDoux (2014) affirmed “the stimulus elaboration which does not arrive in the form of conscious content can be registered implicitly or unconsciously and then it can have a great influence on thought and behavior

Types of Attention

Attention is a cognitive process that allows us to choose and concentrate on relevant stimuli. The most accepted model for the attention sub-components is currently the hierarchical model from Sohlberg and Mateer (1987, 1989), which is based on clinical cases of experimental neuropsychology. According to this model, attention can be divided into the following parts (Attention- Cognitive Ability):

  • Arousal: Refers to our activation level and level of alertness, whether we are tired or energized.
  • Focused Attention: Refers to our ability to focus attention on a stimulus.
  • Sustained Attention: The ability to attend to a stimulus or activity over a long period of time.
  • Selective Attention: The ability to attend to a specific stimulus or activity in the presence of other distracting stimuli.
  • Divided Attention: The ability to attend different stimuli or attention at the same time.
  • Alternating Attention: The ability to change focus attention between two or more stimuli (Focused Attention- Cognitive Skill).



Bottom-up processing is when sensory receptors pick up signals for the brain to integrate and process. As www.jackwestin.com explains, “An example of this is stubbing your toe on a chair, the pain receptors detect pain and send this information to the brain where it is processed.[1] [2] ”

According to mindfulness-supervision.org, bottom-up attention is a sensory-driven selection mechanism that directs perception toward a subset of the stimulus that is considered salient, or attention-grabbing. (“Investigating bottom-up auditory attention – PubMed”)

Bottom-up attention is an unconscious form of attention that we give to things without being aware of it. It is drawn to three main types of stimuli: emotional relevance, moving objects, and unexpected events. Emotional relevance is triggered by stimuli that elicit an immediate emotional response from us. These stimuli are known as primary stimuli and are considered essential to our survival, such as food, reproduction, and avoiding threats. Advertisers often leverage this by creating visually appealing images of food, using attractive models in their ads, and using persuasive language that highlights scarcity or urgency, such as “act now,” “limited time offer,” or “don’t miss out.”



Top-down attention refers to the voluntary allocation of attention to certain features, objects, or regions in space (Journal of Vision). For instance, a subject can decide to attend to a small region of space in the upper-left corner or to all red items. Top-down visual attention improves the perception of selected stimuli, and that improvement is reflected in the neural activity at many stages throughout the visual system. Recent studies of top-down attention have elaborated on the signatures of its effects within the visual cortex and have begun identifying its causal basis (Current Opinion in Neurobiology). Top-down attention has a strong attractiveness and its main characteristics are:

  • It is controlled: it happens consciously according to expectations.
  • It is slow: it requires energy and attention.
  • It is voluntary: it requires focus.


In the case of top-down activation, the selection of specific inputs is based on the goal you are pursuing. As opposed to bottom-up activation where we talk about the salience, in that case, we can talk about relevance.

As explained in this Indeed.com article, the Stroop Effect show the top-down process where participants are presented with a list of words. The words are printed in different colors and the participants must identify the ink color rather than the word.

>>> Why the Attention Economy Matters in Marketing

Measuring attention

First, we must specify that there are a lot of ways to measure attention. Some, mainly in psychology, are more qualitative and use questionnaires and their interpretation. Some are quantitative but they focus on the participant’s feedback (button press, click, etc.…) when they see, hear, or sense a stimulus. Quantitative techniques provide accurate information about the attentive responses which can be either measured directly in the brain or indirectly through the participant’s eye behavior.

>>> Learn more about how attention measurement works.


The Traditional Way to Measure Attention

  • The EEG technique (Electroencephalography) uses electrodes that are located on the participant’s scalp. Those electrodes amplify the electrical waves coming from the brain. An issue of this technique is that the skull and scalp attenuate those electrical waves (How to Measure Attention? | SpringerLink).
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI): the main idea behind this kind of imaging system is that the human body is mainly made of water which is itself composed of hydrogen atoms composed of a single proton. Those protons have a magnetic moment (spin) which is randomly oriented most of the time.
  • Radio Frequency (RF) impulsions orthogonal to the initial magnetic field push the protons to align to this new impulsion and they will align back to the initial magnetic field while releasing RF waves. Those waves are captured, and they help in constructing an image where clear gray levels mean that there are more protons, therefore, more water in the body parts (like in fat for example), and a darker gray level reveals regions with less water like bones for example.
  • MEG detects the magnetic field induced by this electrical activity. The magnetic field has the advantage of not being influenced by the skin or the skull. While the idea is simple, in practice the magnetic field is very low which makes it very difficult to measure. This is why MEG imaging is relatively new: the technological advances let the MEG be more effective based on SQUID (Superconducting Quantum Interference Devices).

In summary, the output is extremely accurate, but these attention measurement techniques require specific and technical skills, and very expensive resources both in terms of budget and time.


The New Way of Measuring Attention using AI

In recent years, emerging technologies helped neuroscience and psychology fields implement new tools and techniques to measure attention in a cheaper and more dynamic way.

  • Eye Tracking: The idea is to use a device that can precisely measure the eye gaze which only provides information concerning covert attention.
  • Head pose measurement: it typically involves using computer vision algorithms to track the position and orientation of a person’s head. These algorithms work by analyzing images or video frames of a person’s face and identifying key facial landmarks such as the eyes, nose, and mouth. Once these landmarks are detected, the position and orientation of the head can be estimated based on their relative positions. It needs just a webcam.
  • Mouse Tracking: The mouse can be precisely followed while an Internet browser is opened by using a client-side language like JavaScript. The mouse’s precise position on the screen can be either captured using homemade code or some existing libraries. It could be less reliable than other techniques, but it is cheaper.
  • Facial Micro-Expression: Micro-expressions are facial expressions that occur within a fraction of a second. This involuntary emotional leakage exposes a person’s true emotions. These expressed emotional states are detected in real-time using fully automated computer algorithms that record facial expressions via webcam. Facial Expression Analysis has been an active research area in Computer Vision, as it has gained popularity in several applications: from marketing research to health care. Nowadays, we can analyze facial expressions more easily and accurately through software implemented with machine learning models which can read micro-facial expressions rapidly and automatically. For example, EmPower can quickly and easily measure attentional and emotional responses in real people.
  • Gaze Detection: This technique is to locate the position on a monitor screen where a user is looking. Eye gaze detection involves using deep learning algorithms for image recognition to track the movement of a person’s eyes. This technique is commonly utilized for gaze tracking to identify where a person is directing their attention.  Eye tracking is becoming a very important capability across many domains, including security, psychology, computer vision, medical diagnosis, and of course marketing.
  • Gaze Estimation Prediction involves using machine learning algorithms to guess where a person is likely to look due to the large amount of data used to train the algorithm.  This type of software uses saliency maps to obtain the final output, so it relies on the difference in contrast of the elements within the image, not considering the movements of the micro-saccades, which are crucial to determining a correct result.


The output of measuring Attention using AI includes:

  • Attention span is the amount of time spent focusing on a task before becoming distracted. Distractibility occurs when attention is uncontrollably diverted to another activity or sensation (Attention span – Wikipedia). According to thetreetop.com, the average human attention span is 8.25 seconds and sometimes can range from 2 seconds to over 20 minutes. “The average human attention span decreased by almost 25% from 2000 to 2015.” And as you can see in the table below, humans have shorter attention spans than goldfish (9 seconds).

[Source: The Treetop Therapy]


>>> To know more about Facial Coding and/or Facial Expression Recognition you can check our BLOG.

Attention metrics in marketing goals

There are other metrics which are relevant in attention for marketing strategy, but they are not technically related to attention studies. Such as:


Click – Through – Rate (CTR)

“The click-through rate (CTR) is the percentage of individuals viewing a web page who view and then click on a specific advertisement that appears on that page (Click-Through-Rate – Analytics for Marketing)” Click-through rates measure how successful an ad has been in capturing users’ attention. “The higher the click-through rate, the more successful the ad has been in generating interest (What is CTR – Click Through Rate – Definition, meaning and examples).” “A high click-through rate can help a website owner support the site through advertising dollars measured in cost-per-click (Click-Through Rate (CTR) Definition).” Because Internet users have become greatly desensitized to ads on web pages over time, a typical click-through rate may be only about two users per 1,000 views (or impressions), or 0.2%.


Completion Rate

Completion Rate measures the percentage of users who complete a specific business goal or a series of goals for example: sharing a document, subscribing to a mailing list, connecting a dashboard to a screen (Completion Rate | KPI example | Geckoboard). It is an indicator of whether the users who have activated your service are ready to move to the next step in your funnel.


Bounce Rate

As CXL explains, “Bounce rate is the percentage of visitors to a particular website who navigate away from the site after viewing only one page.” For example, a bounce occurs when the user leaves the site after viewing only one web page within a few seconds. The average bounce rate is somewhere between 26% and 70%, with the optimal range being between 26% and 40% (Hubspot).

How Attention is used in different industries

Many industries rely on attention techniques to capture their audience. Whether it’s a TV ad or an interactive educational display at a school, many will try different ways to captivate their intended targets. Let’s look at a few examples.



We live in a digital age of constant information. Marketers compete for attention across different channels, constantly experimenting to see what truly resonates with the right audience and at the right time to avoid potential marketing campaign failures. But the attention struggle is real.

The worst competition for a marketer is selective attention or simply focusing on what’s in front of you while ignoring all other distractions. This is where you see marketers trying different techniques such as an abandoned cart email program to try and get customers to complete their transaction or using highly visual graphics to catch someone’s eye.



Educators try different techniques to help students learn and retain information. Visual aids, interactive activities, outdoor classrooms – various strategies help to capture students’ attention and improve their engagement with the material. But much like the marketer’s dilemma, educators face the challenge of several distractions impeding on the teaching process.

Distractions can include items such as mobile phones and even classroom displays for some neurodivergent children (theemotionallearner.com). To improve attention, the Emotional Learner article points out that: “… when information is interleaved (mixed or shuffled with other information, rather than being presented in a block of similar items), people tend to pay more attention to the interleaved items.”



The healthcare field has several needs for attention engagement. From a patient safety perspective, it’s important for medical workers to minimize distractions during important operational procedures or when the patient needs to be monitored closely.

Another use case involves the patients themselves. Neurodivergent or nonverbal patients require a different type of attention and different style of communication. Some researchers have started looking into social robotics to provide a new way to improve patient interactions.



Gaming appeals to many people across all ages. New research shows that video games may improve memory and attention. A US study involving analyzing the brains of more than 2,000 children showed that “parts of the brain “that are highly involved in working memory and attention and problem solving” were more active in gamers (SNexplores.org).”

Attention keeps players engaged and motivated. Some techniques such as rewards, challenges, and user experience help to capture players’ attention and keep them engaged with the game.



Millions of people across the world tune in to sporting events or attend live each year. And while fans use their attention to follow the sports action and support their favorite teams, advertisers use attention to build brand and product awareness in front of an already attentive audience.



How many times have you started watching a show while also doing something else on your phone or computer? In fact, a 2021 study shows that “…52% of internet users said they simultaneously use their smartphone while watching video content on a TV, 28% their desktop or laptop, and 24% their tablet (Amazon).”

It takes 3 seconds to capture a person’s attention before they wander off to something else. So improving attention is extremely important to the media industry. This is where the use of emotional marketing comes into play to drive marketing campaigns to succeed, which hundreds of media teams have done in the past.

Why is attention important?

The attention economy is real. It takes just 3 seconds before someone’s attention gets lost to some other stimuli. Attention matters because it’s what leads a customer to buy a product, a student to fully understand a lesson, a player to become a superfan of a game, and a patient’s needs to be understood in new ways. Attention builds a connection so understanding it and using it to your advantage will your audience relate to your purpose.

In the future, attention will evolve based on the short-term content permeating our lives today (freshered.com):

  • Information cycles will shorten even more as shown in data such as shorter lasting Twitter news topic trends.
  • Longer text will need to shorten and adapted with the assumption that audiences will mostly skim the content.
  • Interactivity will continue to grow and become critical to holding attention.

Use attention to your advantage

With the power of Emotion AI, you can take full advantage of understanding true attention engagement. Learn how EmPower, our Emotion AI solution, works.


Learn how to empower your marketing decisions by identifying the most engaging content.
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