Cognitive Neuroscience of attention

January 26, 2021
Did cognitive neuroscience

To the extent that selective attention skills are relevant for academic foundations and amenable to training, they represent an important focus for the field of education. Here, drawing on research on the neurobiology of attention, we review hypothesized links between selective attention and processing across three domains important to early academic skills. First, we provide a brief review of the neural bases of selective attention, emphasizing the effects of selective attention on neural processing, as well as the neural systems important to deploying selective attention and managing response conflict. Second, we examine the developmental time course of selective attention. It is argued that developmental differences in selective attention are related to the neural systems important for deploying selective attention and managing response conflict. In contrast, once effectively deployed, selective attention acts through very similar neural mechanisms across ages. In the third section, we relate the processes of selective attention to three domains important to academic foundations: language, literacy, and mathematics. Fourth, drawing on recent literatures on the effects of video-game play and mind-brain training on selective attention, we discuss the possibility of training selective attention. The final section examines the application of these principles to educationally-focused attention-training programs for children.


* Selective attention is the ability to enhance relevant signals and manage distraction. * The neural bases and development of this ability are well-understood. * Further, selective attention appears to impact language, literacy, and math skills. * These impacts can be related to specific neurobiological mechanisms. * Selective attention can also be trained for the better.


  • Selective attention;
  • Distractor suppression;
  • Development;
  • Training

Academic achievement is determined by a variety of factors including educational opportunity, socio-economic status (SES), social aptitudes, personality traits, and cognitive skills (see, for example, , and ). Among the latter, the ability to focus on the task at hand and ignore distraction, also termed selective attention, appears to have reverberating effects on several domains important to academic foundations, including language, literacy, and mathematics. While it is important to recognize that many factors determine academic achievement, the focus of this paper will be exclusively on selective attention.

Selective attention refers to the processes that allow an individual to select and focus on particular input for further processing while simultaneously suppressing irrelevant or distracting information. The competing information can occur both externally, as in extraneous auditory or visual stimulation in the environment, or internally, as in distracting thoughts or habitual responses which get in the way of performing the task at hand. As most studies in the literature have focused on the filtering of external information, this review will focus primarily on the ability, when presented with a complex environment, to select the relevant dimensions for the task at hand and respond appropriately. Furthermore, the focus will be on the preschool and early school years, although the considerable neural development occurring during infancy in these domains is acknowledged and discussed elsewhere (e.g., , , , and ). Drawing on research from cognitive science and cognitive neuroscience, we propose a role for selective attention in three domains important to academic foundations (language, literacy, and mathematics). In the sections below, we posit both possible neural mechanisms linking selective attention to each domain, as well as broader implications for educational and remediation programs based on existing data on the plasticity of selective attention.

1. Neural bases of selective attention in adults

Studies of the neural bases of selective attention in adults provide a useful framework for considering the effects of selective attention on academic foundations during development. These studies have often been divided into three separate sets of questions. One set of questions concerns how selective attention, once deployed, modulates information processing. A second set of questions is focused on the mechanism(s) by which selective attention is deployed, including the neural networks that orient attention to particular aspects of the environment. Finally, a third set of questions relates to the neural mechanisms that actively manage competition from irrelevant stimuli, particularly when these are more salient than the target itself. These three sets of questions are considered in turn below.

1.1. Influence of selective attention on information processing

“Everyone knows what attention is…” wrote William James in 1890. “It is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought… It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others…” (, pp. 403–404). Despite these reassuring words, it has taken the last 50 years of research to understand how attention acts to regulate the flow of information made available in the brain. We are past the raging debate of the 1960s over whether attention operates by applying an early versus late bottleneck on information processing ( and ). This has been resolved by research showing that the effects of attention can be observed from neural regions supporting early perceptual processing all the way to higher, more integrative decision areas (e.g., , and ).

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