Skip to main content

Attention Control

Nancy Carlisle, Associate Professor of Psychology at Lehigh University

Controlling our attention is important as we go through our daily tasks. How are we able to direct our attention to information that matters and not be distracted?  Which memory systems help support remembering our goals and avoiding distractors. Cognitive psychologist Nancy Carlisle addresses these questions about the relationship between attention and memory in humans, and her work sheds new light countering long-held beliefs.

Whereas most theories of attention focus on our ability to guide our attention toward a goal, such looking for silver things when we want to find our keys, recent evidence has shown that participants also use knowledge of distractors to improve finding goal objects. Funded by the National Institutes of Health, Carlisle and her colleagues are examining the balance between enhancing targets and avoiding distractors, and they have found evidence that both can be used to enhance performance. We can set up our brain to guide attention towards goals, yet we can also set up our brain to ignore distractors if we have prior knowledge of what will distract us.

“This knowledge that attention can also avoid is new”, says Carlisle, associate professor of psychology and cognitive science. “When people have information about their distractors, that can actually help them attend to their goal items. And it makes sense that we would want to avoid distractors when we really need to concentrate our attention, like when cell phone notifications keep coming through when we are trying to study.”

In laboratory experiments, participants searched for a shape-defined target in a display containing items presented in two colors. “We either provide a cue that says, ‘Your target will be this color’ which is the guide towards that color situation, or, ‘Your target will NOT be this color,’ meaning avoid attention towards that color, Carlisle says. “We find that both of those cases lead to faster reaction times than when you don't have any information at all. Memory is playing a role in this. They get a cue before the search array comes on, so we also need to use our working memory system to hold on to this relevant information until we need to use it.”

In another line of work, Carlisle examines how integral memory is to our visual search processes.  Think about when you are looking for your phone. You have searched for your phone thousands of times before, and you know typical places that you often leave your phone. That information should be incorporated into attention if we are going to behave efficiently in the real world, Carlisle says.  And a recent paper, in the prestigious ‘Journal of Experimental Psychology: General’, shows we do use our knowledge of spatial priorities to guide our attention to likely target locations. 

“When you know what you're looking for and you know its likely location, even if you aren't aware consciously of what that likely location is, you use it- your brain is using it even if you don't know! Everything in attentional theories focuses on our conscious goals and doesn't incorporate these other more implicit forms of memory.”

Understanding attention control might have practical applications treating medical conditions such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). “I think what we really need to do is start taking some of these ideas about how distractors fit into this broader system, and incorporating them into our theories of attentional control,” Carlisle says. “We've firmly established behaviorally that these things are happening, but where in the brain are they happening? How do they actually relate to each other? And is it a similar system or not, and similar brain areas, even if it's being coordinated through a different system? Could people actually improve in this ability with training? Could they get better over time at ignoring if they practice ignoring? Right now, we treat ADHD using medication, but if we understand better why people get distracted and which brain systems are involved, we could potentially create a training regime that would improve their attentional abilities.”

Spotlight Recipient

Nancy Carlisle, Associate Professor of Psychology at Lehigh University

Nancy Carlisle

Associate Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science

Article By:

Rob Nichols