Attention is a major topic of study in psychology and is closely related to the subject of consciousness which was the principal focus of the early psychologists such as Wilhelm Wundt and William James.

In 1958, Broadbent proposed his filter theory which specified that we could only attend to one input at a time. The theory suggested that stimuli can be filtered based upon physical attributes, prior to full processing by the perceptual system. Filter theory proposed that attention was a limited capacity channel that determined the serial processing of the perceptual system.

Filter theory did not allow for the influence of long-term memory or meaning of the stimulus. However, studies showed that semantic characteristics of the stimulus did affect attention. Theories proposed by Deutsch & Deutsch (1963) and Norman (1968) suggested that all inputs are analyzed but only pertinent stimuli were attended to. Neisser (1967) outlined a two-process theory that made attention (and hence consciousness) a matter of degree. According to Neisser's theory, both properties of the stimuli as well as semantic factors, play a role in attention. Neisser argues for a constructive view of cognition in which perception is shaped by existing knowledge and hence attention is influenced by experience.

Kahneman (1973) introduced a model of attention that introduces the idea of deliberate allocation. The model suggests that in addition to unconscious processes, attention can be consciously focused (such as when someone mentions our name). The model also introduces the idea of attention as a skill that can be improved (i.e., as a learning strategy). In his Conditions of Learning theory , Gagne suggests that gaining the attention of the student is the first step in successful instruction.

Eysenck (1982) examines the relationship between attention and arousal. He concludes that there are two types of arousal: a passive and general system that can raise or lower the overall level of attention, and a specific, compensatory system that allows attention to be focused on certain task or environmental stimuli.


Broadbent, D. (1958). Perception and Communication. London: Pergamon Press.

Deutsch, J. & Deutsch, D. (1963). Attention: Some theoretical considerations. Psychological Review, 70, 80-90.

Eysenck, M. (1982). Attention and Arousal. NY: Springer-Verlag.

Kahneman, D. (1973). Attention and Effort. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Neisser, U. (1967). Cognitive Psychology. New York: Appleton-Century-Croft.

Norman, D. (1967). Memory and Attention. New York: Wiley.

Trabasso, T. & Bower, G. (1968). Attention in Learning. New York: Wiley