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The issue of why people pay attention, how much they do and to what is often more referred to as selective attention. In any busy scene, be it a classroom or a freeway, it’s virtually impossible to note everything at once. What a person pays attention to in these circumstances is what they select to pay attention to, though it may be noted that selection is not necessarily conscious. Selected attention can then be viewed as the process by which people find something upon which to concentrate, and the level of concentration they can continue to exert as distractions arise.
There are many theories as to why people select certain things or why they have varying levels of selective attention. Some believe that the memory or the working attentional state can only hold so much at a time; so people filter out what they deem unnecessary or unimportant, usually without being aware of the filtering process. A number of theories have linked the study of attention to the senses and to the idea of how these arouse focus decisions in humans, and others believe neural function is very much involved. For instance, if two people call someone else at the same time, to whom will that person respond? Possibly, people are already attuned to respond to a more familiar voice, a louder voice, or a voice of a certain pitch, and so they’ll automatically select which person gets the response, and they may not even realize another person has also called them.
Degree of selective attention may vary depending on people, and some people have low attention levels, particularly if they have certain learning disorders. Conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can make it challenging for students to stay appropriately focused and any distractions may make a student lose focus. It’s hard for the ADHD child to remain in touch with a single thing, though at times they can also exhibit hyper focus.
In a slightly different fashion, those with forms of autism can have focus difficulties too, though principally the difficulty has to do with selection. Autism is sometimes described as receiving “all channels” on the radio station, where the person is possibly paying attention to nearly everything. Trying to filter out most of the channels to pay attention to one thing is often the challenge of those with disorders on the autism spectrum; in other words, they can’t tune in to a single channel and are flooded with too many choices.
There are many other potential conditions that may inhibit attention of this type. Poor sleep makes people more easy to distract, and shift workers in particular can have this problem. Any form of brain injury can also reduce attention level, too.
One way in which the concept of selective attention is used out of the cognitive and learning fields is in advertisement. When advertisers craft ads, they have to try to do so in ways that will draw in people to watch them. A number of things might be employed, as for instance appealing to certain age groups with visuals, music, or other, that are most likely to get noticed. This a challenging job given the many potential distractions that may be occurring in a person’s home when the TV is on, but there are clearly some advertisers quite skilled at grabbing the attention of desired audiences and holding it for a few seconds.