What are selective attention, confusional status and covert guidance?

What are selective attention, confusional status and covert guidance?

Attention and conduct

Attention is a basic cognitive process. That is, an adequate attentional state is needed for the rest of the cognitive processes to function properly. The perception of internal and external stimuli that reach our brain depends on our attention state. Likewise, attention allows us to select the most important stimuli from the set of signals it receives Our brain, so that our behavior is oriented correctly towards the most relevant events of the environment that surrounds us.


  • 1 Attention is a complex cognitive function
  • 2 The general attention state
  • 3 Selective attention
  • 4 Selective attention and covert guidance

Attention is a complex cognitive function

The attention is divided into the general attentional state and selective attention.

  • The general attention state It refers to the ability to maintain an adequate state of alert for a prolonged period of time that allows the correct processing of the stimuli of our environment.
  • Selective attention It refers to the ability to select a discrete stimulus from the set of information that constantly comes to us, so we maximize the effectiveness of our cognitive resources and do not have to divide them between various sources of stimulation.

The general attention state

The general attention state is necessary to be able to carry out any other cognitive function, since it allows us to detect the stimuli of the interior and exterior environment that surrounds us. When the general attention state is altered, all cognitive processes are affected.

The alteration of the general attention state is known as confusional state.

The confusional state may be the result of metabolic disorders, poisonings or primary disorders of the central nervous system. The most frequent causes of alteration of the general attention state are summarized below.

Most frequent etiologies of the confusional state:

  • Metabolic disorders: hypoxia; hypoglycemia; electrolyte imbalance; liver, kidney or lung abnormalities; endocrine abnormalities
  • Infections:
    • Systemic: Pneumonia, septicemia.
    • Intracranial: Meningitisencephalitis
  • Poisoning: Alcohol; anticholinergic drugs; sedatives and hypnotics; Industrial toxic
  • Drug withdrawal: Alcohol; sedatives and hypnotics.
  • Neurological diseases: Epileptic crisis; head injury; focal lesions (right parietal lobe, occipitotemporal region, frontal lobemidbrain, thalamus).
  • Others: Post-surgical states

The patient in confusional state is often sleepy and, in extreme cases, the confusional state can lead to coma. In any case, it seems that the confusional state does not necessarily have to coincide with an alteration of the general state of cortical (or arousal) activation, since the alteration of attention can be much more serious than the state of drowsiness. Some patients, for example, They may be fully awake, even agitated, but showed a disproportionate alteration of attention. Thus, the mechanisms of general attention and those of the arousal do not seem to overlap completely.

In addition to the alteration of general attention, the confusional state is characterized by the alteration of the surveillance state and a high distractibility, which prevents maintaining a coherent thought and makes it impossible to carry out intentional movements. All cognitive functions (orientation, memory, language, judgment, etc.) are altered. In the same way, perceptual alterations may appear, such as hallucinations, mood alterations and psychomotor agitation or extreme passivity.

Selective attention

From the set of stimuli that we constantly receive, we have to select one or more on which to focus our attention. This is achieved through selective attention.

Imagine you are at a party with many people talking around you. Assuming that your general attention state is correct, that is, assuming that you have not exceeded your consumption of alcoholic drinks, you will be able to detect many conversations. Selective attention will allow you to focus on just one of these conversations and ignore the rest, so they don't interfere.

But why do we need to focus our attention on a limited number of stimuli instead of processing them all? Maybe our brain cannot process all sensory information simultaneously. However, although our brain could process all sensory information simultaneously, The effectiveness of cognitive processing is greater when limited to a small number of stimuli.

Selective attention is a dynamic function, since we can change the focus of attention depending on the circumstances. Continuing with the example of the party, this allows, for example, that we quickly pay attention to the back conversation if we feel someone is talking about us. Sometimes, in addition, we will try to maintain two or more focus of attention at the same time. We call this process divided attention. Logically, cognitive processing is less effective when we pay attention to many stimuli, since it increases the possibility of interference, but divided attention allows us to do several tasks at the same time, such as conducting and maintaining a conversation, or cooking and listening to the news.

Selective attention and covert guidance

When we hear an intense and sudden noise, we direct our senses towards the source of stimulation. Thus, for example, we turn our head and body, and move our eyes in the direction of the stimulus. This is one open orientation response, since it implies an evident movement of different organs of the body.

Sometimes, however, we can focus on a stimulus without the need for any kind of motor response. This is called covert orientation.

Generally, covert orientation accompanies open orientation, but covert orientation has often been used in experimental designs to study the neural basis of selective attention.

In a typical experimental situation, a subject is placed in front of a computer screen and asked to press a button as quickly as possible when it detects the presence of a particular stimulus (for example, a square) on either side of the screen. The subject, however, is asked not to look away from a point in the middle of the screen. If, before the appearance of the stimulus to be detected, we provide a clue to the side on which the stimulus will appear (for example, indicating with an arrow), the subject will detect the stimulus more quickly when the joint indicated by the arrow appears than when it appears the opposite side. This indicates that the subject, induced by the orientation of the arrow, had focused his attention on one side of the screen, although the eyes had not moved from the point in the middle of the screen.

The subject has been instructed not to look away from the center of the screen and to press a button when it detects the presence of a square. If before the presentation of the stimulus we give you a clue of the side on which the square (A) will appear, it will detect its presence more quickly when it appears next indicated by the arrow (B) than when the opposite side (C) appears. This shows that, although he has not moved his eyes from the center of the screen, he had focused his attention on the side of the screen indicated by the arrow.

In the same way that we can focus attention on a specific spatial location, as in the previous example, we can also focus on a specific stimulus.

Covert orientation can be directed to both spatial locations and discrete stimuli.

This ability to focus our attention on discrete stimuli allows us to follow a stimulus in motion without moving our eyes. The fact that we focus our attention on one stimulus and not on another depends on several factors, such as the physical characteristics of the stimulus (color, luminosity, etc.), if it appears suddenly, if it moves or is static, it depends on the subjective relevance that you have for us, etc.

Imagine that we present two stimuli in the same spatial location (for example, a square with a vertical stripe that crosses it from top to bottom) for a period of time of milliseconds, which prevents ocular movements (tachytoscopic presentation). In this situation, the subjects can describe up to two characteristics of the same object (the square is red with the black outline, or the line is thin and has dots, for example), but they cannot describe a characteristic of each of the two objects (The square is red and the line is thin, for example). The reason is that your attention can only focus on one of the two objects.

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