The term selective attention means the avoidance of distraction by irrelevant stimuli while seeking out and focusing on stimuli that are momentarily important. It is affected by both voluntary and reflex mechanisms. An example of voluntary control of directed attention familiar to students is ignoring distracting events in a busy library while studying there. An example of selective attention occurs with the presentation of a novel stimulus to a relaxed subject showing an alpha EEG pattern. This causes the EEG to shift to the beta rhythm. If the stimulus has meaning for the individual, behavioral changes also occur. The person stops what he or she is doing and looks around, listening intently and orienting toward the stimulus source. This behavior is called the orienting response. If the person is concentrating hard and is not distracted by the novel stimulus, the orienting response does not occur. It is also possible to focus attention on a particular stimulus without making any behavioral response.
For attention to be directed only toward stimuli that are meaningful, the nervous system must have the means to evaluate the importance of incoming sensory information. Thus, even before we focus attention on an object in our sensory world and become aware of it, a certain amount of processing has already occurred. This so-called preattentive processing serves to direct our attention toward the part of the sensory world that is of particular interest and prepares the brain’s perceptual processes as we direct our attention to a particular object or situation.
If a stimulus is repeated but is found to be irrelevant, the behavioral response to the stimulus progressively decreases, a process known as habituation. For example, when a loud bell is sounded for the first time, it may evoke an orienting response because the person might be frightened by or curious about the novel stimulus. After several ringings, however, the individual makes progressively less response and eventually may ignore the bell altogether. An extraneous stimulus of another type or the same stimulus at a different intensity can restore the orienting response. Habituation involves a depression of synaptic transmission in the involved pathway, possibly related to a prolonged inactivation of calcium channels in presynaptic axon terminals. Such inactivation results in a decreased calcium influx during depolarization and, therefore, a decrease in the amount of neurotransmitter released by a terminal in response to action potentials.