How many types of attention are there? Part 1

Thomas Z. Ramsøy

February 2, 2022

In all customer touchpoints, attention is an absolute key! But what is attention really? While we might think of attention as a single thing, recent studies in cognitive neuroscience and psychology suggest that there are at least four types of attention.

What is attention?

When William James wrote his introduction text to psychology in 1890, he provided a definition that has been relevant and correct ever since: 

“Everyone knows what attention is. It is taking possession of the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seems several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. Focalization, concentration of consciousness are of its essence. It implies a withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others.”

This was extremely insightful, and deserves some unpacking:

  • Attention is about selection and priority: we are not attending everything at once, and we attend to something at the cost of other things.
  • It is also about a concentration of the mind: attention allows better processing of what you are attending.

Types of attention

Attention is more than a single thing. Consider what could happen as you read this text: you are focusing on reading it. But now, let’s say that your phone starts ringing and buzzing--you immediately start paying attention to the phone.

Here, we see an example of two types of attention: your focusing on the text is one type, and the sudden attention to the phone is the other.

These two types of attention are also labeled differently: 

  • The phone buzzing is an instance of bottom-up attention. This basically means that it is your senses (i.e., “bottom”) that leads to attention. This type of attention is automatic and does not require much work.
  • Focusing on the text is called top-down attention, which is a form of attention that requires mobilization, time, and motivation.

This is best shown when we compare eye-tracking data from our attention AI Predict that show the contrast of what people look at during the first couple of seconds, relative to the last couple of seconds (when images are present for 5 seconds):

Note that the brand only gets attention at the last 2 seconds.

Brand attention is strong for the first few seconds in this ad

While attention shifts from beginning to end, the brand is not seen

The images above clearly demonstrate differences in what constitutes bottom-up attention (typically the first second or so) and top-down attention (takes over 2 seconds to mobilize). Consider also that most ads rarely get more than 3 seconds, especially on phones and on other online media.

Brain fact: Looking at the brain, bottom-up attention is driven by the sensory input, reaching your awareness through regions such as the pulvinar nucleus of the thalamus, and then the primary sensory cortices. The brain basis for top-down attention mainly lies in the prefrontal and parietal cortex. Activity here can both boost and hinder activity in other parts of the brain, which is exactly what happens when you have decided to look for a particular product in the store.

But bottom-up and top-down are only two types of attentional drivers. In recent years, we have also seen a couple of other types of attention drivers suggested:

  • Emotional attention: Let’s say that there is a sudden sound outside the window where you are sitting. This sudden sound startles you, and also leads you to automatically attend what is going on outside. This type of attention is similar to bottom-up attention, but it is in the form of emotional attention, in that there’s an emotional response that drives attention.

Facial beauty and symmetry tends to produce a lot of visual attention, especially when facing and looking at the camera.
Brain fact: The brain basis of emotional attention lies in the way that we are wired. Regions such as the amygdala have more projections back to the primary visual brain, and can boost visual attention. At the same time, increased emotional responses also means stronger dilation of the pupils, which also increases the intake of visual information.
  • Cognitive attention: Finally, consider that you are reading the text, and as you scroll down on the page, a famous brand name pops out to you: Coca-Cola. There is a suggestion in the academic literature that things we have a strong knowledge about are also more readily seen. This type of attention can be called cognitive attention, although a firm name has not yet been found.

We tend to spend more time looking at and reading text.
Brain fact: Cognitive processes in the brain are scattered "all over", but some important parts include the temporal lobe, including the medial temporal lobe. This region is involved in recognition, comprehension, memory, and related functions. So cognition is very much about the temporal lobe, and to some extent the prefrontal cortex.

 Differences in attention

The four types of attention are also different in how they are constructed. Here, the table below shows some main differences:


As the table shows, we can almost classify the types of attention into two main groups: those that are automatic (bottom-up, emotional, and cognitive), and those that are controlled (top-down). This also roughly corresponds to the classical divide between System 1 and System 2, as seen in behavioral economics and behavioral psychology research. Here, System 1 is the term for processes that are triggered automatically, and System 2 are more conscious, controlled deliberation processes. 

Attention and brain function

The table above also shows that there are different brain regions involved in each attention type. Below, we show a simplified model of the attentional systems in the brain and how each type of attention relies on a different set of input. The example is for visual attention, so the visual cortex is in all four types of attention modes (yellowish area):


We've split this article into two parts; in the second part, you can read about: the difference between divided and sustained attention, how can you measure attention, four steps to boost attention, and more. Read on in Part 2.

How many types of attention are there? Part 1

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