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What Is Selective Visual Attention?

By C.B. Fox
Updated May 17, 2024
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Selective visual attention allows a person to take in a great deal of visual data from the environment but attend to only a small portion of it. There is a great deal of information coming into a person's brain through the eyes, so the brain processes only a small part of it, choosing to ignore the rest, an effect known as inattentional blindness. Though the brain continues to receive data from the entire field of vision at once, most of this data is ignored most of the time. Instead, selective visual attention decreases the focus of the field of vision to a smaller section of the total field so that a person can focus on the details that are important at the moment.

There are two types of visual processing that happen within the human brain. The first is called pre-attentive processing, and occurs across the entirety of a person's field of vision simultaneously. This type of processing allows a person to notice changes in the environment. For instance, an object that was previously still that has suddenly started to move or an object of a different color amongst objects of the same color will draw a person's selective vision. Evolutionarily, this method of pre-processing data allowed humans to survive in a hostile environment.

Once an object or objects have been selected out of the field of pre-attentive processing data, a person has focused attention on it. This object becomes the focus of the eyes and is given a large portion of the working memory. The pre-attentive field remains active, however, and can alert a person to another change in the environment if one appears. Attention may be focused through the use of either the top-down or the bottom-up approach. In the top-down approach, deviations from the current environment trigger the selective vision, but in the bottom-up approach, attention is focused based on prior experiences and long-term memory expectations.

When people devote their focus to one thing in their field of vision, it is possible to become blind to other objects or events that the person can see. This happens because the brain determines that these other things are not as important as whatever the person is currently focusing on. The range of focus of selective visual attention can be as small as one degree of the total field of vision. Scientists are not sure how large a range of focus a person can have.

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Discussion Comments

By ysmina — On Aug 31, 2014

@lluviaporos-- I saw a film about multiple personality disorder and schizophrenia. They showed that the character could in fact take in a lot of visual and auditory information without realizing. Some of it was stored in the subconscious and the person was using it at a later time under a different personality without even being aware of it. If something like this is truly possible, then selective visual attention may just have to do with space in the conscious mind.

I think this is a very interesting topic and I hope that scientists and doctors study it further. There is still so much to learn about the brain.

By literally45 — On Aug 30, 2014

@fify-- Yea, that sounds like inattentional blindness. It happens to me too. I look at a lot of paintings as part of my job and I just cannot process all of the details in a painting at once. I have to look at it again and again, concentrating on a small part each time. I guess this is just how our eye and brain coordination works. Everyone experiences this.

By fify — On Aug 29, 2014

I think it's very cool that our eyes are able to do so much. Selective visual attention and other mechanisms really help us make the most of what we're seeing. They help us pick out the information worth procession for our most benefit.

Selective visual attention also explains why I'm unable to find things that I'm looking for. For example, my mom will ask me to go get the scissors from the cabinet. I'll go and come back not having seen it when it was in fact there. I've always wondered why that happens. I guess it's because my eyes are not concentrating on that.

By umbra21 — On Aug 29, 2014

@Iluviaporos - You might be able to widen it, but I don't think it's possible to train yourself to the point where you are focusing on everything you can see, all the time. You only have so much brain power, and spreading it around is just going to make it difficult to concentrate or notice something in particular.

By lluviaporos — On Aug 28, 2014

@irontoenail - It might depend on what the person can remember though. Most people can't remember everything they pay attention to, let alone things they don't really focus on. But some people might be able to remember anything they focus on with their selective visual attention.

I know you can definitely train it to be better or wider, because they taught us about that in a self defense course I did once. They told us that we really had to concentrate in bad situations and try to keep from narrowing our focus too much or we might miss something crucial.

By irontoenail — On Aug 27, 2014

The amount of information that you're constantly bombarded with through your eyes is one of the reasons that a photographic memory would be so extraordinary and why it's probably never really existed. Most of the time when people talk about a photographic memory, they mean someone who is extremely good at remembering a few things, like dates, or weather patterns, but not at recalling every single thing they've ever seen, as it's depicted in the movies.

I've seen films where a character could just look at pages of a book without reading them and afterwards recall the text well enough to read it. If you truly were storing that amount of trivial information in your brain I think it would fill up very quickly.

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