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Cognitive Psychology: Attention · Decision making · Learning · Judgement · Memory · Motivation · Perception · Reasoning · Thinking  - Cognitive processes Cognition - Outline Index

In cognitive neuroscience, attentional control refers to individuals' capacity to choose what they pay attention to and what they ignore.[1] It is also known as endogenous attention or executive attention. In lay terms, attentional control can be described as an individual's ability to concentrate. Primarily mediated by the frontal areas of the brain including the anterior cingulate cortex, attentional control is thought to be closely related to other executive functions such as working memory.[2][3]



Early researchers studying the development of the frontal cortex thought that it was functionally silent during the first year of life.[4] Similarly, early research suggested that infants aged one year or younger are completely passive in the allocation of their attention, and have no capacity to choose what they pay attention to and what they ignore.[5] This is shown, for example, in the phenomenon of 'sticky fixation', whereby infants are incapable of disengaging their attention from a particularly salient target.[6] Other research has suggested, however, that even very young infants do have some capacity to exercise control over their allocation of attention, albeit in a much more limited sense.[7][8]


As the frontal lobes mature,[9] childrens' capacity to exercise attentional control increases,[1] although attentional control abilities remain much poorer in children than they do in adults.[10] Some children show impaired development of attentional control abilities, thought to arise from the relatively slower development of frontal areas of the brain,[11] which sometimes results in a diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

Abnormal development

Disrupted attentional control have been noted not just in the early development of conditions for which the core deficit is related to attention such as ADHD[12], but also in conditions such as autism[13] and anxiety.[14] Disrupted attentional control has also been reported in infants born preterm[15], as well as in infants with genetic disorders such as Down syndrome and Williams syndrome.[16] Several groups have also reported impaired attentional control early in development in children from lower socioeconomic status families.[17]

The patterns of disrupted attentional control relate to findings of disrupted performance on executive functions tasks such as working memory across a wide number of different disorder groups.[1] The question of why the executive functions appear to be disrupted across so many different disorder groups remains, however, poorly understood.

Long-term significance

Importance for learning

Modular approaches view cognitive development as a mosaic-like process, according to which cognitive faculties develop separately according to genetically predetermined maturational timetables. Prominent authors who take a modular approach to cognitive development include Jerry Fodor, Elizabeth Spelke and Steven Pinker. In contrast, other authors such as Annette Karmiloff-Smith, Mark Johnson and Linda Smith have instead advocated taking a more interactive or dynamical systems approaches to cognitive development. According to these approaches, which are known as neuroconstructivist approaches, cognitive systems interact over developmental time as certain cognitive faculties are required for the subsequent acquisition of other faculties in other areas.

Amongst authors who take neuroconstructivist approaches to development, particular importance has been attached to attentional control, since it is thought to be a domain-general process that may influence the subsequent acquisition of other skills in other areas.[18] The ability to regulate and direct attention releases the child from the constraints of only responding to environmental events, and means they are able actively to guide their attention towards the information-rich areas key for learning. For example, a number of authors have looked at the relationship between an infants' capacity to exercise attentional control and their subsequent performance during language acquisition.[19][20]

Related measures


A number of research groups[17][21][22] have recently suggested that attentional control and the related concepts of self control and effortful control[23] may relate longitudinally to a number of long-term outcomes, such as future earnings, academic success and physical health. For example, a recently published study[21] assessed 1,000 children from birth through to the age of 32 years, and found that self control assessed at an early age could predict a number of later outcomes including substance dependence, and criminal offending outcomes, even when factors such as socioeconomic status and family background were controlled for.

Delay of gratification

The famous marshmallow experiment measuring delay of gratification assesses childrens' ability to delay eating a marshmallow for a short period of time in exchange for receiving several marshmallows later on. Childrens' performance on this task was found to be predictive of a number of long-term academic and socio-economic outcomes later in life.[24] The neural mechanisms underlying delay of gratification are thought to overlap with those underlying attentional control and self control - including the medial prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex.[25]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Astle, D. E. & Scerif, G. (2009) Using Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience to Study Behavioral and Attentional Control. Developmental Psychobiology 51(2): 107-118.
  2. Posner, M. I. & Petersen, S. E. (1990) The attention system of the human brain. Annual Review of Neuroscience 13: 25-42
  3. Astle, D. E. & Scerif, G. Interactions between attention and visual short-term memory (VSTM): What can be learnt from individual and developmental differences? Neuropsychologia 49(6): 1435-1445.
  4. Bell, M. A., & Wolfe, C. D. (2007). Changes in brain functioning from infancy to early childhood: Evidence from EEG power and coherence during working memory tasks. Developmental Neuropsychology, 31(1), 21-38.
  5. Colombo, J. (2001). The development of visual attention in infancy, Annual Review of Psychology (Vol. 52, pp. 337-367)
  6. Hood, B. M. & Atkinson, J. (1993) DISENGAGING VISUAL-ATTENTION IN THE INFANT AND ADULT. Infant Behavior & Development 16(4): 405-422.
  7. Johnson, M. H. (1995) THE INHIBITION OF AUTOMATIC SACCADES IN EARLY INFANCY. Developmental Psychobiology 28(5): 281-291.
  8. Colombo, J. & Cheatham, C. L. (2006) The emergence and basis of endogenous attention in infancy and early childhood. Advances in Child Development and Behavior, Vol 34 34: 283-322.
  9. Gogtay, N., Giedd, J. N., Lusk, L., Hayashi, K. M., Greenstein, D., Vaituzis, A. C., Nugent Iii, T. F., Herman, D. H., Clasen, L. S., Toga, A. W., Rapoport, J. L. & Thompson, P. M. (2004) Dynamic mapping of human cortical development during childhood through early adulthood. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 101(21): 8174-8179.
  10. Davidson, M. C., Amso, D., Cruess Anderson, L. & Diamond, A. (2006) Development of cognitive control and executive functions from 4 to 13 years: Evidence from manipulations of memory, inhibition, and task switching. Neuropsychologia 44(11): 2037-2078.
  11. Shaw, P. Lerch, J., Greenstein, D., Sharp, W., Clasen,L., Evans,A., Giedd,J., Xavier Castellanos, F., Rapoport, J. Longitudinal Mapping of Cortical Thickness and Clinical Outcome in Children and Adolescents With Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Archives of General Psychiatry. 2006;63:540-549.
  12. Sonuga-Barke, E. J. S., Koerting, J., Smith, E., McCann, D. C. & Thompson, M. Early detection and intervention for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Expert Review of Neurotherapeutics 11(4): 557-563.
  13. Elsabbagh, M., Volein, A., Holmboe, K., Tucker, L., Csibra, G., Baron-Cohen, S., Bolton, P., Charman, T., Baird, G. & Johnson, M. H. (2009) Visual orienting in the early broader autism phenotype: disengagement and facilitation. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 50(5): 637-642.
  14. Rothbart, M. K., Ellis, L. K., Rueda, M. R. & Posner, M. I. (2003) Developing mechanisms of temperamental effortful control. Journal of Personality 71(6): 1113-1143.
  15. van de Weijer-Bergsma, E., Wijnroks, L. & Jongmans, M. J. (2008) Attention development in infants and preschool children born preterm: A review. Infant Behavior and Development 31(3): 333-351.
  16. Cornish, K., Scerif, G. & Karmiloff-Smith, A. (2007) Tracing syndrome-specific trajectories of attention across the lifespan. Cortex 43(6): 672-685.
  17. 17.0 17.1 Welsh, J. A., Nix, R. L., Blair, C., Bierman, K. L. & Nelson, K. E. The Development of Cognitive Skills and Gains in Academic School Readiness for Children From Low-Income Families. Journal of Educational Psychology 102(1): 43-53.
  18. Scerif, G. Attention trajectories, mechanisms and outcomes: at the interface between developing cognition and environment. Developmental Science 13(6): 805-812.
  19. Kannass, K. N. & Oakes, L. M. (2008) The development of attention and its relations to language in infancy and toddlerhood. Journal of Cognition and Development 9(2): 222-246.
  20. Rose, S. A., Feldman, J. F. & Jankowski, J. J. (2009) A Cognitive Approach to the Development of Early Language. Child Development 80(1): 134-150.
  21. 21.0 21.1 Moffitt, T. E., Arseneault, L., Belsky, D., Dickson, N., Hancox, R. J., Harrington, H., Houts, R., Poulton, R., Roberts, B. W., Ross, S., Sears, M. R., Thomson, W. M. & Caspi, A. A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 108(7): 2693-2698.
  22. Duckworth, A. L. & Seligman, M. E. P. (2005) Self-discipline outdoes IQ in predicting academic performance of adolescents. Psychological Science 16(12): 939-944.
  23. Posner, M. I. & Rothbart, M. K. (2009) Toward a physical basis of attention and self-regulation. Physics of Life Reviews 6(2): 103-120.
  24. Casey, B. J.; L. H. Somerville, I. H. Gotlib, O. Ayduk, N. T. Franklin, M. K. Askren, J. Jonides, M. G. Berman, N. L. Wilson, T. Teslovich, G. Glover, V. Zayas, W. Mischel, Y. Shoda (August 29, 2011). "From the Cover: Behavioral and neural correlates of delay of gratification 40 years later". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108 (36): 14998–15003.
  25. Kelly, A. M. C., Di Martino, A., Uddin, L. Q., Shehzad, Z., Gee, D. G., Reiss, P. T., Margulies, D. S., Castellanos, F. X. & Milham, M. P. (2009) Development of anterior cingulate functional connectivity from late childhood to early adulthood. Cerebral Cortex 19(3): 640-657.
Aspects of attention
Absent-mindedness | Attentional control | Attention span | Attentional shift | Attention management | Attentional blink | Attentional bias | Attention economy | Attention and emotion | Attention optimization | Change blindness | Concentration |Dichotic listening | Directed attention fatigue | Distraction | Distractibility | Divided attention | Hyperfocus | Inattentional blindness | Mindfulness |Mind-wandering | Meditation | Salience | Selective attention | Selective inattention | Signal detection theory | Sustained attention | Vigilance | Visual search |
Developmental aspects of attention
centration | [[]] |
Neuroanatomy of attention
Attention versus memory in prefrontal cortex | Default mode network | Dorsal attention network | Medial geniculate nucleus | | Neural mechanisms | Ventral attention network | Intraparietal sulcus |
Neurochemistry of attention
Glutamatergic system  | [[]] |
Attention in clinical settings
ADHD | ADHD contoversy | ADD | AADD | Attention and aging | Attention restoration theory | Attention seeking | Attention training | Centering | Distractability | Hypervigilance | Hyperprosexia | Cognitive-shifting | Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy |
Attention in educational settings
Concentration |
Assessing attention
Benton | Continuous Performance Task | TOMM | Wechsler Memory Scale |
Treating attention problems
CBT | Psychotherapy |
Prominant workers in attention
Baddeley | Broadbent | [[]] | Treisman | Cave |