4.5 Attention - Cognition, Consciousness, and Language

MCAT Behavioral Sciences Review - Kaplan Test Prep 2021–2022

4.5 Attention
Cognition, Consciousness, and Language


After Chapter 4.5, you will be able to:

· Compare and contrast controlled processing and automatic processing

· Describe the role of the “filter” used in selective attention

Attention refers to concentrating on one aspect of the sensory environment, or sensorium. While this definition is straightforward, an understanding of how attention works and the mechanism by which we can shift our attention from one set of stimuli to another is still somewhat unclear.


Selective attention is focusing on one part of the sensorium while ignoring other stimuli. It therefore acts as a filter between sensory stimuli and our processing systems. If a stimulus is attended to, it is passed through a filter and analyzed further. If the stimulus is not attended to, it is lost. In its original conceptualization, selective attention was viewed as an all-or-nothing process: if we choose a particular stimulus to give our attention to, the other stimuli are lost. However, recent evidence indicates that this is not the case.

Imagine this: You are at a party, talking with a friend. However, your ears perk up when you hear your name spoken halfway across the room. Even though you were engaged in conversation and presumably paying attention, you were able to perceive your name being mentioned. This is sometimes called the cocktail party phenomenon and is evidence of a different interpretation of selective attention. Selective attention is probably more of a filter that allows us to focus on one thing while allowing other stimuli to be processed in the background. Only if the other stimuli are particularly important—one’s name being mentioned, a sudden flash of light, pain—do we shift our attention to them.

Dichotic listening tests are designed to test selective attention. Participants are given headphones that have distinct auditory stimuli going to each ear. Participants are then asked to pay attention to either or both stimuli, then asked to repeat out loud what they heard in the attended ear, which is termed shadowing. This task tests selective attention because participants are asked to filter out information from the unattended ear. Alternatively, the task can test whether participants can subconsciously gain information from the unattended ear.


Divided attention is the ability to perform multiple tasks at the same time. Most new or complex tasks require undivided attention and utilize controlled (effortful) processing, discussed in Chapter 3 of MCAT Behavioral Sciences Review. In contrast, familiar or routine actions can be performed with automatic processing, which permits the brain to focus on other tasks with divided attention. Consider learning to drive: at first, drivers intensely grip the steering wheel and pay undivided attention to the road ahead. But as you become more accustomed to driving, you can relegate some aspects of driving—like knowing how hard to push on the pedal—to automatic processing. This lets a driver perform secondary tasks such as changing the radio station. That being said, automatic processing is far from perfect. It does not allow for innovation or rapid response to change, which may contribute to the high incidence of car accidents that result from distracted driving.

MCAT Concept Check 4.5:

Before you move on, assess your understanding of the material with these questions.

1. Compare and contrast controlled (effortful) processing and automatic processing:

o Controlled (effortful) processing:

o Automatic processing:

2. Briefly describe the function of the “filter” used in selective attention: