Types of Attention (A Comprehensive Guide)

“[Attention] is the taking possession of the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thoughts. … It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others. “ —William James, Principles of Psychology.

In this article, we will discuss the attention and types of attention. 

It is not quite easy to describe cognitive functions such as perception, attention, memory, or analytical reasoning.

Attention is the means of processing the limited amount of information from a large amount of information available through perception, memory, or cognitive resources.

It can be both conscious and unconscious. It is easier to study the conscious process than the unconscious process simply because the process is conscious.

A person tends to have a lot of information but they do not process all the information at a given time as it can become highly overwhelming.

For example, a person knows where they slept at the age of 12 or where they ate their breakfast at the age of 12.

A person also has an abundance of information from their sensory organs which they do not simply attend to.

All this is conscious information that they do not attend to at a given time but a person knows a little about what information they process when they are asleep which can be understood as an unconscious process. there many types of attention. 

By attending to certain stimuli from a large amount of information helps in many cognitive functioning.

Diming the light on certain stimuli and highlighting others makes us better able to attend to the stimuli of our interest.

By attending better we can respond better and effectively to those stimuli. Attention also helps in the memory process.

Stimuli which are processed better are better consolidated in memory.  Attention can be both overt and covert.

Overt attention is attending to a few extensive outside stimuli while covert attention is the process of attending to the few of so many memories and thought processes.

Let’s learn about types of attention 

Categorizing Types of attention:

Attention is a very general concept and there are many types of attention.

Different types of attention refer to the specific and detailed aspects of attention. These different aspects constitute different types of attention.

The following are the most known types of attention.

Furthermore these types of attention can be categorized based on different aspects. 

Types of Attention: Locus of stimuli 

Internal attention:

It is the individual’s ability to use the process of attention for identifying one’s own mental process and thought processes.

Introspection requires the process of internal attention. It is also known as covert attention.

External attention:

It is a type of attention that is attributed to some external stimuli.

Some external stimuli in the environment and surroundings trigger this kind of attention. It is also known as covert attention. 

Types of Attention: Attention towards a stimulus

Open attention:

This type of attention is accompanied by some motor movement which is necessary to keep the attention.

When a person turns to head towards stimuli to pay attention to it, it constitutes open attention.

Hidden attention:

It is the type of attention that allows the person to pay attention to a stimulus without appearing to do so.

For example in a party, a person engaged in the conversation can also process the conversation going on around him with the help of hidden attention. 

Types of Attention: Attention while performing a single task 

Selective attention:

Selective attention is also known as focused attention.

This type of attention lets the individual to attend to and focus on one single stimulus while simultaneously rejecting all other irrelevant.

This blocks out all other potential stimuli which can result in distraction from specific stimuli.

Sustained attention:

This type of attention lets the individual maintain enough resources of attention and respond to the stimuli effectively and efficiently. 

Types of Attention: Attention while multi-tasking 

Alternating attention:

This type of attention let the person move and forth between tasks while multitasking.

A person preparing a meal while reading the recipe of the meal is taking the help of altering attention.

Divided attention:

This type of attention lets the individual pay attention to more than one stimulus at one time.

Because of divided attention a person is able to drive and listen to music at the same time.

Types of Attention: Source of stimuli

Visual Attention:

This type of attention is associated with the spatial aspect of human cognition.

Through visual attention a person is able to attend to the stimuli which are in the field of vision. 

Auditory attention:

In contrast to visual attention it is associated with the temporal aspect of the individual.

Through auditory attention a person is able to attend to stimuli that are sensed by ears. 

In many handbooks and scientific resources such as Fundamental Components of Attention of the Annual Review of Neuroscience, there are detailed descriptions of each type of attention.

In those manual types of attention are divided with respect to the taxonomies such as sensory modalities, the attitude of individual, amplitude, and modality in addition to other taxonomies. 

A detailed description of the above-mentioned type of attention is in the section below.

Sustained attention:

Sustained attention is the ability of an individual’s cognitions to focus on one task for a prolonged period of time.

It is the type of attention that probably might come to your mind after listening to the word attention.

Sustained attention helps individuals to focus on a task for a longer period of time such a while attending lectures, making videos, and reading a book.

It should be noted though that it is not easy to sustain attention for a longer period as individuals are prone to distraction.

Thus the time period of sustained attention varies from person to person. A person might be intensely focused on a task for a minute and then a minute might lose his attention.

The key to sustained attention is that the individual is able to bring back his focus to a task after a distraction. 

Alternating attention:

Alternating attention is the ability of an individual’s mental processes that help him to move his attention back and forth between the tasks which require different cognitive abilities.

It is the process of alternating attention between two tasks which require two different parts of the brain.

A person almost constantly uses alternating attention as an individual is required often required to make sudden changes to his actions and activities which occur because of a shift in attention.

Alternating attention can be used in similar tasks such as reading a recipe while preparing it or can be between two entirely different tasks such as cooking while helping your child in his homework. 

Divided attention:

Divided attention is the ability of an individual’s cognition to attend and respond to two different tasks simultaneously.

Simply put it is about dividing the attention between two different stimuli which require two different kinds of cognition and involve two different parts of the brain.

It is usually used when a person is involved in multitasking. For example when a person is talking to a friend and getting, making dinner, or driving a car. In contrast to alternating attention, a person does not shift attention to another task but tries to focus on two tasks simultaneously.

It should be noted here that human brain is capable of performing one task only at a time, if it has not been trained to multitask, thus while using dividing attention a person continuously shift attention from one task to another at a rapid speed unable to perform any one task efficiently and effectively.

This is why it is really dangerous to drive a car while texting. Although a person’s brain has this much capacity that it can be trained to perform the different tasks at one time.

This happens only because of muscle memory or out of the habit of individual.

This lets the person perform two different tasks almost simultaneously such as playing the instrument while reading the music or talking to a person while driving.

Most of the habits such as playing instrument or typing become a part of muscle memory and makes it easier to perform two tasks simultaneously.

Because of the muscle memory a person can perform the task without attending to it or putting in conscious effort. 

Selective attention:

Selective attention is the ability to consciously attend to a range of characteristics based factors and characteristics of stimuli.

This process occurs simultaneously with filtering out stimuli not of interest to the individual.

This phenomenon lets us select the stimuli that we want to pay attention to. 

Imagine yourself at a party, where you are engaged in a conversation which a person who sells electronics and he engages you with the excruciating details of which brand is better for which electronic.

At the same time your attention diverts to the attention of the other two diners who are in a conversation about one of your acquaintances which you find interesting.

In this situation, a person tends to keep up with the boring conversation, mentally filtering it out while attending to an interesting conversation.

This phenomenon is known as the Cocktail Party Effect. 

Cocktail party effect is a phenomenon based on selective attention.

It is a phenomenon in which an individual tracks a conversation in the face of another conversation.

He observed this phenomenon in cocktail parties mostly.

He did not let observation stay in parties but studied it more methodically through an experiment called shadowing. 

In an experiment of shadowing, Colin cheery asked his participants to listen to two different messages at the same time.

This kind of presentation is known as a dichotic presentation. Participants were required to repeat one of the messages and shadow the other one.

Participants of the study were pretty successful in shadowing the other message and repeat the one shortly after it was presented.

He also observed that, participants noted the changes in physical aspects of other message but they were not able to decipher the semantic related to other messages.

They observed the change in tone and pitch of the message but couldn’t understand the shift from English to the German language.

He also pointed out that when the participant’s name was mentioned in shadowed message participants shifted their attention.

According to Colin cherry, this shift in attention showed little capacity for working memory. 

According to Brungard & Simpson (2007) three aspects are important in selectively attending to the target speaker.

These three aspects are as follow:

  • Pitch of the sound
  • Loudness of sound 
  • Location of sound

FAQs about types of attention 

What is attention is psychology?

Attention is a behavioral and cognitive process in which an individual attends to a particular stimulus while ignoring all other perceivable stimuli.

It is a major area of investigation in cognitive psychology and neuroscience. 

What are the three major models of attention?

There are three major models of attention by Broadbent, Treisman, and Deutsch and Deutsch.

These three models are also known as the bottleneck model of attention.

According to these models, individuals cannot attend to all the perceived stimuli at a conscious level.

What is involuntary attention?

It is a type of intention which is not intentionally attributed towards a stimulus but a certain stimulus outside the context grabs the attention and makes the person respond to it.


Sternberg, R. J., & Sternberg, K. (2016). Cognitive psychology. Nelson Education.

Thepeakperformancecenter.com: Types of attention. 

Bitbrain.com: What are attention, types, and disturbances