Attention is both the preparedness for and mental selection of certain aspects of the physical environment or ideas in one's mind. Several researchers have argued that there might be more than one singular form of attention. Converging data from behavioural, imaging, electrophysiological, developmental and genetic assay studies provide compelling evidence that alerting, orienting and executive attention constitute three largely independent networks.
Alerting defines the ability to increase and maintain response readiness in preparation for an impending stimulus. It is task-specific and can be distinguished from the domain-general cognitive control of arousal. Neuroimaging studies have shown activity in the frontal and parietal regions, particularly of the right hemisphere, when people are required to achieve and maintain the alert state.
Orienting is the ability to select specific information from among multiple sensory stimuli, and can be either overt or covert, and either exogenous or endogenous. The pulvinar, superior colliculus, superior parietal lobe, temporoparietal junction, superior temporal lobe and frontal eye fields are often activated in studies of the orienting network.
Executive attention describes the monitoring and resolution of conflict between computations in different neural areas. Imaging studies have identified the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) in cognitive conflict tasks, and activation in the rostral ACC after the commission of errors. Whether the ACC monitors or resolves conflict is not clear, but ACC function seems to preferentially relate to conflict at the response level.
It is possible to test the limits of attentional functions by examining healthy participants under atypical conditions. Recent demonstrations using suggestion kept the experimental design unspoiled and manipulated the participants' attention instead. Extensive attention training, such as that seen in those that are experts at meditation, could allow for the rapid and volitional shifts of alternate attentional profiles.
The three-network theory might not be falsifiable in the Popperian sense, as it allows for the simultaneous independence and dependence of the individual networks. Nevertheless, this model has served a valuable heuristic purpose, generating a large body of research from which new theories and empirical findings have evolved. In the future, this theory could be extended and revised to permit more testable predictions as additional research is conducted using new methodologies.
In this age of information explosion, conceptual tools are as important as technological ones. The exponential increase in the number of articles published on attention each year has resulted in a fragmenting of research into highly specialized yet isolated subfields. Adopting a big-picture approach that encompasses a clear formulation of different typologies and nomenclatures would probably allow for better management of experimental findings, which, in turn, would lead to a more focused and cohesive research agenda in the quest to elucidate human attention.
Attention is a central theme in cognitive science — it exemplifies the links between the brain and behaviour, and binds psychology to the techniques of neuroscience. A visionary model suggested by Michael Posner described attention as a set of independent control networks. This challenged the previously held view of attention as a uniform concept. The idea that disparate attentional networks correlate with discrete neural circuitry and can be influenced by focal brain injuries, mental state and specific drugs has since been supported by converging data from several modern methodologies. Given the recent explosion in empirical data, attentional typologies provide powerful conceptual tools with which to contextualize and integrate these findings.
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We thank M. Posner, R. Parasuraman and I. Robertson for helpful discussions and constructive comments regarding early versions of this manuscript.
The authors declare no competing financial interests.
Attentive receptive concentration that allows certain individuals to change the way they experience themselves and the environment. These individuals often show heightened compliance with suggestion.
- Cognitive psychology
The psychological study of the thinking, feeling or acting mind, which cuts across diverse fields of behaviour.
- Cognitive neuroscience
The study of how the brain enables the mind.
- Emotional regulation
The reduction, increase or maintenance of an emotional response (for example, fear, anger or pleasure) on the basis of the actions of the self or others.
The ability to manipulate one's own emotions, thoughts or actions on direction from the self or another person. Emotion regulation can be a form of self-regulation, but it can also be induced by actions of others.
- Effortful control
The ability to inhibit, activate or sustain a response, which includes the capacity to inhibit a dominant response in order to perform a subdominant response. In temperament research, individual differences in effortful control are measured as a factor score that combines scales dealing with attention and the ability to regulate behaviour on command.
- Inhibitory control
The reduction in the probability, speed or vigour of the normal response to a stimulus based on instruction from the self or others. It is often measured by scale scores on a questionnaire or by a task that requires one to withhold or delay a response.
- Top-down effect
Controlling, regulating or overriding a stimulus-driven or other bottom-up process by such factors as attention or expectation.
- Event-related potentials
(ERPs). A non-invasive electrophysiological technique based on scalp electrode recordings of evoked-response potentials.
- Positron emission tomography
(PET). A technique using positron-emitting radioactive tracers that are attached to molecules that enter biological pathways of interest to study the relationship between energy consumption and neural activity.
- Functional MRI
(fMRI). A non-invasive technique that permits imaging of the living brain and provides findings that relate neural to cognitive activity by measuring small changes in the magnetic properties of blood.
(MEG). A technique similar to ERP methods that detects the changing magnetic fields associated with brain activity.
- Attention networks test
(ANT). A brief behavioural task that, together with spatiotemporal cues, assesses the efficiencies of the executive, alerting and orienting attentional networks. The ANT can be used with children or adults, in both health and disease, as well as with non-human primates.
- Raven's progressive matrices
A popular measure of intellectual ability that assesses reasoning in the visual modality and provides sensitive measures of abstraction abilities. Responses do not require verbalization, skilled manipulation ability or subtle differentiation of visuospatial information.
- Allelic association assays
Experiments aimed at correlating genotype (that is, specific genetic polymorphisms) with phenotype (that is, carefully measured behaviours) in line with an underlying brain theory.
- Vigilance tasks
A set of tasks requiring sustained attention during which participants typically monitor displays over extended periods of time for the occasional occurrence of crucial events (signals). Signals are low-probability events that require action, and are embedded in the context of recurrent non-signal events that require no overt response.
- Alerting tasks
A set of tasks requiring participants to prepare for the imminent appearance of a target at a known location. For example, a visual cue could alert the participant that a subsequent target will soon appear at a known location.
- Retinotopic visual area
Stimulating different areas of the visual field during a brain scan reveals their corresponding retinotopic representation (maps) in the cortex. Several distinct areas in visual cortex preserve the retina's map.
- Proverbial homunculus
A term of art in neuroscience. Homunculus refers to the 'little man' inside the brain.
- Transcranial magnetic stimulation
(TMS). A technique used to induce transient interruption of normal activity in a relatively restricted area of the brain by rapidly changing a strong magnetic field near the brain area of interest.
- Posthypnotic suggestion
A condition during common wakefulness (after termination of the hypnotic experience) during which, on a prearranged cue, a participant readily complies with a suggestion made during the hypnotic episode.
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Raz, A., Buhle, J. Typologies of attentional networks. Nat Rev Neurosci 7, 367–379 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn1903
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