Attention is a concept studied in cognitive psychology that refers to how we actively process specific information present in our environment. As you are reading this, there are numerous sights, sounds and sensations going on around you – the pressure of your feet against the floor, the sight of the street out of a nearby window, the soft warmth of your shirt, the memory of a conversation you had earlier with a friend. How do we manage to experience all of these sensations and still focus on just one element of our environment?
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."
Think of attention as a highlighter. As you read through a section of text in a book, the highlighted section stands out, causing you to focus your interest on that area. Attention allows you to "tune out" information, sensations and perceptions that are not relevant at the moment and instead focus your energy on the information that is important.
James, W. (1890). The Principles of Psychology. New York: Holt.