Attention is "the act of concentration on any one of a set of any subjects or thoughts".

(Collins dictionary). Selective attention is "the process by which a person can selectively pick out one message from a mixture of messages occurring simultaneously" (Collins dictionary). As the two definitions suggest, only in the case of selective attention the person selects where to direct his attention. But attention is not always selective; it is often automatic, instinctual, conditioned or biased.This essay rejects the statement that "attention is merely a matter of selection" by looking at several attentional processes in which no selection takes place. It is structured as follows: First it looks at selective attention.

It then examines the role automatic attention plays in divided attention. Following that it will determine the hindering effects that instinctual attention, conditioned attention and attentional biases have on being able to selectively attend to something. Finally it presents disciplines, in which increased control over the capability to use selective attention is sought after.It concludes that although in some situations selective attention is applied, in most situations what people attend to is determined by automatic attention, conditioned attention, instinctive attention and attentional biases. Selective attention is controlled in a top-down way by the individual's goal (Eysenck, p.

119). An experiment by Yarbus (1967), for example, showed that if a picture is presented it will be scanned very differently according to what information the viewer wants to retrieve from it (Gleitman, p. 44).He selectively chooses what aspects of the picture to attend to. The cocktail party phenomenon is a typical example of selective attention. When presented with several conversations or auditory messages at the same time, subjects can attend to the chosen one and "ignore" the others.

When they are asked to report about the contents of the unattended conversations or messages, none or very little information is available. Why do they remember so little of the unattended messages?Early theories about selective attention such as those of Broadbent and Treisman suggested that only a certain amount of stimuli is selected and the rest filtered out. These theories suggest that, to record a stimulus, the person must selectively attend to it and therefore they seem to agree with the statement that attention is merely a matter of selection. Attentional processes that conflict with this view will now be looked at. If people could only attend to selected stimuli and filter the rest out, then the notion of divided attention seems contradictory.The capability for divided attention is often explained by either rapidly shifting attention back and forth between two tasks (Napoleon was renowned for being able to dictate 5 letters at the same time, but must have rapidly switched between the five to make this possible) or by automatic attention on one or the other task.

Experiments by Moray and Stein ; Solomon's showed that two tasks, such as reading and writing at the same time, which seemed impossible to the novice and the theorist, could be mastered by practice and willpower (Neisser, p. 9).The practised subject can combine driving and talking, for example, or shadowing and sight-reading music, because one of the two activities has become automatic. This suggests that when automatic attention is utilised whilst performing a task, selective attention does not have to be applied. It further points to the fact that attention can be conscious (such as having a conversation) and unconscious (such as driving a car) and therefore does not have to be a matter of selection, as it sometimes occurs unconsciously.Instinctual attention is controlled by external stimuli in a bottom-up way (e.

g. a quick movement or loud noise). It is reminiscent of the past, where any sudden changes in the environment could mean danger. As Lang put it, "the responding to one type of stimulus rather than another is dictated by the organism's pre-existing drive state - hunger, sexual needs, threat of harm" (Lang, p.

97). Even when a subject focuses his eyes on something specific, his peripheral vision still informs him about what is going on around him, though not precisely.If something moves in the peripheral field, he has to shift his attention to find out what exactly is happening. Movement in the peripheral vision tends to trigger a reflex eye movement, making it difficult not to look toward a moving object. Sudden significant changes in the environment compel people to attend to them.

It is biologically and instinctively difficult to ignore instinctual attention and therefore it can easily interrupt selective attention. The effects of conditioned attention are demonstrated very well in both an experiment led by Corteen and Wood and in the Stroop test.In the experiment designed by Corteen and Woods subjects were presented with 2 lists of words with instructions to shadow one and ignore the other. When a word that had previously been associated with electric shock was presented on the non-attended list, physiological reactions indicative of alarm were triggered (Neisser, p. 94). Subjects were not aware of their attention to the unattended message, but had been conditioned in a way, as to relate certain words with electrical shocks and therefore automatically riveted part of their attention to the word.

In the Stroop test subjects are asked to name the colours of the inks in which words are printed and ignore the words themselves. If the words are colour names so that the correct response to the word yellow is "blue" when it is printed in blue in this is very difficult. (Neisser, p. 95) Subjects are conditioned to read the word and would therefore naturally attend to the meaning of the word and not to the ink. Conditioned attention makes people attend to a related second stimulus as soon as the first stimulus is presented.

No conscious selection process to attend to the second stimulus takes place. The emotional Stroop task and the dot-probe point towards an interesting approach to what people attend to: Attentional bias. When a person attends to a specific stimulus and turns sensory organs such as the eyes or the ears towards it, extra activation is spread to the parts of the cortex that are processing information about the stimulus. This may inhibit the activation of others, which suggests that attention amplifies what is relevant, not only psychologically but biologically as well.

(Westen, p. 96) Similarly when someone expects a certain stimulus, specific detectors are activated.Therefore when the expected input actually arrives, it is more likely that the person will attend to it. Even a very small stimulus will be enough to trigger a response. At the same time, the person will be less receptive for any other kind of stimulus.

MacLeod and Matthews (1988) used the dot-probe task to test attentional bias towards or away from examination-relevant stress words, by presenting one examination-relevant word at the same time as a neutral word on a computer screen.When tested a long time prior to an important examination, no attentional bias was perceivable. In the week before the examination, attentional bias towards or away from the threat-related stimuli could be recognised (Eysenck, p. 507). This suggests that what people attend to is sometimes regulated and biased by unconscious attention processes according to the circumstances people are in. Automatic attention, instinctual attention, conditioned attention and attentional biases all hamper the capability to selectively attend to only a chosen set of stimuli.

Any person that wants to master something, be it a complicated mathematical problem or to hit a golf ball correctly, strives to acquire the capability of selective attention, as this dramatically increases performance in the chosen task. In disciplines such as Martial Arts or mediation, the capability to selectively attend to only one thing, such as the hara or respiration, is an important aspect of the training. It creates more awareness, which in turn enables the practitioner to be more conscious of a wider range of stimuli.But although selective attention enables the individual to focus on the chosen train of thought or object, a whole range of other attentional modes ready to be activated always accompany it. When the famous golf player Tiger Woods, for example, focuses on his stroke, his entire selective attention is riveted to the ball, but if a gunshot would be fired, his instinctual attention would notice the possibility of danger and his selective attention would switch to the messages received by the instinctual attention processes. Although selective attention can be very powerful, it can easily be influenced by external stimuli in a top-down way.

This essay concludes that what we attend to is influenced by a wide variety of things. It is impossible to attend to everything around us at the same time; there is always more information available than that which we pick up. Although for good performance in any chosen task or activity it is useful to be able to selectively attend to it and ignore other stimuli as much as possible (if someone is in an exam the capability to ignore surrounding noises and fully concentrate on the exam is more then helpful), other attentional processes play an important and useful role in what people attend to.Instinctual attention, for example, is important, as it forces people to attend to threatening stimuli.

Without the capability to automatically attend to certain stimuli, many combined tasks such as driving and talking at the same time would be made very difficult. As many attentional processes such as the instincts, conditioning, emotional states, attentional biases and automatisms are often combined and influence what people attend to, attention is not merely a matter of selection.