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Models of Selective Attention 31

First, when a top-down model of perception is adopted, the ability of perceivers to make
immediate sense of unexpected stimuli is poorly explained. When changing television channels, we are
immediately able to perceive the content of the picture on the screen, even though it has no perceptual
or semantic relationship to what has come before it.
Second, Neisser contended that systems do not exist within the nervous system to filter out a portion
of the sensory input. He stated that such mechanisms have neither biological nor psychological reality.
The biological evidence suggests that both selection (or pickup) and filtering (or inhibition) are ele-
ments of the neurophysiology of visual perception. The filtering and selection of stimuli constitutes a
basic design principle within the visual system at a neuronal level (see Chapter 7). Stimuli or channels
that are selected on the basis of task demands evoke very different physiological responses during
the early stages of perception.
Schema models, as articulated by Neisser, emphasize the role of the perceiver in selecting informa-
tion in the environment and define attentional focus as a function of schema. Much of Neissers cri-
tique of filtering makes semantic rather than functional distinctions. Formally speaking, the schema
model may also be described as requiring the filtering of unattended-to information, but Neisser
argued against the need for an active process to inhibit the awareness of irrelevant information. In a
certain sense, filter and schema models may describe complementary processes. Filter theory may
describe the systems whose current operating characteristics are set by schemata. Although Neisser
denied that such filter systems are necessary, physiological as well as psychophysical evidence has
been accrued that points to their reality. In combination, these two theoretical currents give a more
comprehensive view of the role of attention: Schemata determine why something is selected for atten-
tion, and filter theories describe how this happens and what constraints exist in comprehending the
diversity of the signals that are presented by the environment.

Visual Selective Attention


On reviewing the selective attention literature, Moray concluded that different mechanisms are involved
for different types of input [11]. Visual signals, for example, are usually spatially extended but of short
duration, whereas auditory signals, particularly speech, are extended over time and are presented
sequentially. These different inputs probably require different processing strategies for optimal perfor-
mance. Still, visual processing has properties that can be categorized as selective in nature.
Selective attention in the visual system usually occurs after extensive preattentive analysis of the
visual field. The distinction between preattentive visual processing and attentional processing has
been used by a number of investigators (e.g., [8, 12]). The preattentive stage of vision includes pro-
cesses that require little or no effort, that occur early in the temporal sequence of visual processing,
and that operate across the entire visual field simultaneously. Automatic processes include such per-
ceptual operations as the segregation of figure from ground, the maintenance of size constancy, and
textural discriminations. Attentionally demanding visual operations, on the other hand, are usually
carried out on circumscribed areas of the visual field and entail the serial scanning of large areas.
Automatic attention may be partially driven by the perceptual processes within circumscribed local
regions of the visual field. The notion that information tends to be automatically organized and
selected based on its contrast with the surrounding environment has been recognized by psychologists
for many years. As discussed in the last chapter, Gestalt psychologists (e.g., [22]) emphasized the
organization of the visual field on the basis of such principles as stimulus similarity, proximity, and
common fate. The automatic reorganization of the visual field that results in emergent properties and
object discrimination is so effective that attentional processes play little role in Gestalt theory. Whether
such phenomena is entirely perceptual or requires some form of attentional processing has been the
subject of considerable debate among cognitive scientists since that time, with conclusions depending
at least in part on whether the question is addressed from the perspectives of the study of sensation
and perception or cognitive psychology.
32 3 Cognitive Psychology of Attention: Foundations

Recent perceptual theorists have tried to distinguish properties that are automatically evaluated by
the perceptual system and properties that require attention or effort to discriminate. Julesz, for exam-
ple, contrasted the automatic, preattentive segregation of the visual field on the basis of texture with
the serial, focal attention used to search for specific objects within the visual field [23]. Textural ele-
ments may be quite complex in appearance and may vary in orientation yet may still be automatically
grouped together. Objects of focal attention may be physically dissimilar and distributed across the
visual field but may nevertheless be grouped by category membership. Treisman [8, 16] argued that
preattentive vision extracts a set of simple features, including color, size, contrast, orientation, curva-
ture, line ends, and stereoscopic depth across the whole visual field. Objects that differ in a single
simple feature are automatically discriminated (e.g., a green circle will perceptually pop out of a
group of orange circles). Focal attention to a circumscribed location is required to identify an object
on the basis of conjunctions of features, however. It takes effort, for example, to locate green squares
amid a field of green circles and orange squares. The object, in this case, is defined by the conjunction
of greenness and squareness. In order to examine a visual field for a conjunction of features, therefore,
a viewer would need to search areas of the visual field sequentially. One appeal of Treismans model
is that simple features, perceptually defined, may be associated with specific populations of feature-
sensitive neurons identified in the occipital cortex. An argument against this model is the observation
that figures emerge from ground on the basis of conjunctions of many different features; yet this pro-
cess is ordinarily very fast and effortless (i.e., preattentive).
Direction of the attention to different locations in the visual field has been likened to a spotlight
that enhances the efficiency of the detection of events within the beam [19, 24]. The direction in which
the spotlight is directed is usually correlated with foveal position, but its effects can also be appreci-
ated at more peripheral locations through experimental manipulations. This finding suggests that the
spotlight is generated by analysis late in visual processing. As will be discussed in much greater detail
in subsequent chapters, laboratory experiments involving primates and lesion studies indicate that the
parietal lobe and several subcortical centers are involved in the movement of the attentional spotlight
across the visual field [2528].
Most studies of visual selective attention have used static visual displays. However, when consid-
ering attention in everyday life, this is generally not the case. To illustrate this, Neisser conducted an
experiment in which people responded to significant events in one sports game that was superimposed
over the image of a different sports game presented on the same viewing screen [20]. Subjects in the
study were very effective in following and responding to the specified game, while ignoring the other
game. Subjectively, the viewers were hardly aware of the ignored game. Neisser argued that these
findings show that selective attention cannot be attributed to differences between the attended-to and
ignored games in their physical features or spatial origin, but rather are influenced by expectancies
and understanding of the visual continuities of a sports game. The study illustrates that following
visual events with temporal extension demands the same kind of exclusive attention that listening to
continuous discourse requires.
In summary, selective attention in visual processing seems to occur late in the perceptual interpre-
tation of a visual field. In fact, the integration of a visual scene may occur with little attentional selec-
tion. Visual selection takes place after extensive preattentive analysis and organization of the visual
field, which occurs rapidly, automatically, and in parallel. Visual selection is required by tasks that
involve the location of specific conjunctions of features or objects not isolated by preattentive pro-
cesses. Visual selection over a static display entails scanning over sections of the visual field, a pro-
cess that has been likened to the use of an attentional beam or spotlight. Spatial attention can be
directed to specific sections of the visual field and can enhance later detection performance. Selective
attention is also required for viewing a complex sequence of events over time, but the mechanisms
that allow effective selection are unknown.
Models of Selective Attention 33

Attention and Signal Detection


Signal detection theory provides a particularly power methodology for studying and characterizing
attentional performance [2931]. Unlike dichotic listening experiments, early studies testing signal
detection theory typically did not employ semantically complex material or messages that extended
over long periods of time. Instead, these studies have used simple stimuli (tones, lights, and letters) in
experimental settings where the information is just above the subjects threshold. The experiments
were usually been designed to minimize the influence on the data of memory, response generation, or
individual characteristics. In addition, such reduced paradigms have allowed the application of a
mathematical characterization of filtering systems using signal detection theory to characterize the
strategies and filtering characteristics of perception for a set of experimental conditions. Signal detec-
tion theory allows an experimenter to differentiate the detectability of the signal (d ), which varies as
a function of noise within the nervous system, as well as of external noise, and an internal criterion for
reporting the presence or absence of a signal.
Although signal detection experiments have addressed many of the issues posed by the dichotic
listening experiments, historically there was little interaction between these two experimental and
theoretical approaches perspectives. For the detection of auditory signals, several mechanisms were
tested. Tanner and Norman proposed a dual mechanism for the selection of target tones [32]. One
mechanism is a single-channel (or single-band) receiver that can be placed anywhere over the hearing
range and that picks up one frequency or a narrow range of frequencies. This narrow-channel system
corresponds to focal attention. It can be activated by telling a listener, Raise your hand when you hear
this tone (A flat over middle C). The second system, which operates concurrently but is not limited
by attention, receives information over the whole auditory spectrum and is activated by any sound.
The narrow-channel system can pick up a specific frequency efficiently despite a low signal-to-noise
ratio, as only the noise in the narrow channel of interest needs to be evaluated. The wide-channel
system can pick up any signal, but because it is much less effective in dealing with the great amount
of noise over the whole auditory range, it is far less sensitive than the narrow-channel model. A mul-
tichannel system has also been proposed, in which the listener can focus attention on more than one
frequency channel at a time [33].
Experimental evidence suggests that listeners can adopt either the single-channel or the multiple-
channel approach when attending to auditory information. A single-channel approach is most effec-
tive when the listener knows that the information will arrive in a particular channel and that the
signal-to-noise ratio will be poor. A multiple-channel approach, although less sensitive to the signals
in any given channel, is useful when the listener is not sure in which channel the information of inter-
est will arrive [29].

Channel Selection Over Time: Vigilance


Many tasks used in experimental psychology to investigate performance make stringent demands on
processing capacity. Subjects are asked to view informative stimuli for a fraction of a second, to
respond quickly, to recall information that has little meaning and no relevance to their everyday life,
to respond rapidly to series of stimuli, or to perform more than one task at a time. Lapses of attention
and errors of performance seem unavoidable under such conditions.
There is a class of tasks, however, that requires responses to events that occur only infrequently.
Such tasks require vigilance, a state of readiness to respond despite long intervals of empty waiting.
Such tasks are increasingly a part of modern occupations. Equipment operators monitor the consoles
of automated factories, responding only to disturbances of function; radar and sonar operators wait for
infrequent but perhaps very significant signals; an underling waits for an infrequent opening to inter-
rupt a supervisors monologue. Under such conditions, ones ability to sustain attention (as well as
ones patience) is tried. And despite our best efforts, lapses of attention occur.