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Our Divided Attention

How we navigate the many streams of information flowing in our direction.

Key points

  • Divided attention is necessary for responding to important events in our daily lives, therefore distraction can be useful.
  • Memory is often blamed for what we selectively did not attend to.
  • Selective attention can cooperate with memory by focusing longer, while memory can cooperate by reminding us to pay attention.

Selective attention involves concentrating on one main channel of information and not others – for example, focusing on the sentences in this blog post and not on the soles of your feet in your shoes or the hum of the refrigerator or the lingering aroma of last night’s dinner. Such focusing is inclusionary and not deliberately exclusionary. One analogy is picking an apple from a tree. When we pick an apple, we are not actively rejecting all the other apples. We are focusing on one apple that looks appealing to us.

Zen Chung/Pexels
Source: Zen Chung/Pexels

Limitations of Attention

Often, memory is blamed for what we selectively did not attend to. Eyewitness testimonies are incomplete not because of the frailty of memory but because we haven’t been trained to attend to unexpected events in our periphery.

The limits of selective attention show themselves with driving. We can easily drive and talk simultaneously in light traffic or good weather because driving involves primarily visual attention, and neither driving nor talking demands full attention. However, during rush hour or a sudden downpour, many of us will grow quiet because of the increasing attentional demands.

Texting while driving is dangerous because both activities demand visual attention. Doing one draws attention away from the other. Simply engaging in concentrated visual thought while driving can increase the chance of an accident. It’s better to sing.

Defining Distraction

The flipside of selective attention is distraction, which may sound unhelpful, but is often necessary and useful. Suppose we place a pot on the stove to warm up some food and then go off to do something else. Being distracted by a burning smell can save the pot and possibly the kitchen. While engaging in an intense conversation at a party, if someone across the room says our name, our attention will suddenly shift to that person.

Defining Automaticity

Actions practiced over many years require so little attention that carrying out the action takes less attention than not carrying it out. One resonant example is reading. We cannot see a word in our own language without reading it and look at the word on the following line – but don’t read it.


It’s impossible – because of automaticity. The meaning of the word enters our consciousness before we can suppress it. Automaticity underlies the famous Stroop effect, best illustrated when color words are printed in different colors, and we must name the colors and not read the words. Naming the colors is difficult because we first read the words and suppress their meanings before switching our focus to the colors.

Automaticity and Memory

When an action becomes automatic, we may not spend enough attention on remembering. When reading, we only need to understand the general meaning of a phrase before moving on to the next one. We don’t need verbatim memory for the words or phrases, we only need memory for the overall gist. If we are usually comfortable reading, we won’t remember the specific words or phrases. Once again, what appears as a limitation of memory is the necessary efficiency of attending selectively.

Guillaume Meurice/ Pexels
Source: Guillaume Meurice/ Pexels

Change Blindness

Selective attention is implicated in the effect of “change blindness.” Certain aspects of our visual world can change, and we won’t notice them because we do not selectively attend to them. If our attention is directed to these changes, then we can easily see them. This can happen with the unanticipated and with aspects of people, we aren’t attending to. With selective attention, we may not even register certain information standing right in front of us.

Max Fischer / Pexels
Source: Max Fischer / Pexels

ADHD Defined

For many years, disruptive children in the classroom were called “hyperactive.” In fact, in 1968, Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 2nd edition (DSM-2) codified this difficulty and called it “Hyperkinetic Impulse Disorder.” After more than a decade of research on these children, however, the DSM reinterpreted hyperactivity as a disorder of attention.1 Subsequent DSMs reintroduced and integrated hyperactivity, leading to the category known as ADHD, which involves an underlying difficulty with selective attention.

Paying Attention to Memory

Many times in our daily lives, we don’t attend long enough to remember. If we forget what we wanted to do when we enter a room, that means we didn’t attend to the thought sufficiently to remember it beyond our first noting of it.

Selective attention needs to cooperate with memory by focusing longer, allowing the world to get into memory. In turn, memory needs to cooperate with attention by reminding us to pay more attention every so often.


1. Attention Deficit Disorder or ADD, with a distinction made between ADD with and without hyperactivity.

More from Robert N. Kraft Ph.D.
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