When it comes to memory and learning, attention and perception are key variables that can work both in our favor and against us. Attention is the cognitive process of noticing and evaluating the information in one’s environment and filtering out the information that is less important. The amount of attention individuals devote to their surroundings affects how they encode information. Recall from section 3.1, for example, how Gathercole and Alloway (2007) described distraction—the diversion of attention—as a limit to working memory. Simply put, it is harder to remember something if you were not paying attention to it. Because research has suggested that humans can process only a limited amount of information at a time, attention helps them decide what is needed and what is not. When too much information comes too quickly and it’s not possible to attend to every detail, we choose what to attend to.
How an individual discerns, understands, and interprets the information is referred to as perception . Our mental representation of the situation affects how we encode and align new knowledge and experiences to previous ones. For example, consider how you approach your studies during your journey as a student. Your personal interests, as well as past experiences, can affect your attention to the material you are studying. Your perceptions about how relevant or difficult the subject is or your self-efficacy (your ability to succeed) can affect how you encode the information discussed throughout your journey. Even your views about how qualified you think your instructor is to teach the material can affect how the information is encoded.
The series of excerpts in this section is from Brosch, Scherer, Grandjean, and Sander (2013). As you read, pay close attention to how emotions can affect how information is processed. Consider how emotional events could trigger behaviors that may not align with how others might react to the same event.
Excerpts from “The Impact of Emotion on Perception, Attention, Memory, and Decision-Making”
By T. Brosch, K. R. Scherer, D. Grandjean, and D. Sander
The Mind Game
The functioning of the human mind has often been characterized as a battle between opposing forces: reason, rational and deliberate, versus emotion, impulsive and irrational. This way of thinking can be traced back to Plato, who described the human soul as divided into cognition (what we know), emotion (what we feel), and motivation (what we want) and has been further developed by philosophers such as René Descartes (“Les passions de l’âme”) and David Hume (“A Treatise of Human Nature”). For a long time, the notion of the opposition of cognition and emotion has been guiding much research in psychology. Cognitive functions—such as perception, attention, memory, or decision making—have been investigated without taking into account emotion, which was considered as interference that is counterproductive for the correct functioning of the cognitive system. [. . .]
The Impact of Emotion on Perception and Attention
In our everyday environment, we are constantly confronted with large amounts of incoming sensory information. As the capacity of our brain is limited, we cannot process all information entering our senses thoroughly, but have to select a subset to prioritize its processing at the cost of other information. The competition for neural processing resources, in-depth analysis, and preferential access to conscious awareness is organized by dedicated attention systems (Driver, 2001).
Distinct functional subprocesses of attention have been put forward, and their respective properties have been isolated using both behavioral and brain-imaging methods. Low-level properties such as the physical intensity of a stimulus may trigger an automatic, reflexive orienting, referred to as exogenous attention. In contrast, stimuli that are important to the current behavior of the organism (e.g., when searching for one’s keys, or trying to find a friend in a crowd) are selected by a voluntary top-down deployment of endogenous attention, driven by implicit or explicit expectations for a specific object or location. [. . .]