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A critical analysis of William James’s statement on attention

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Paul B.
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  1. Introduction.
  2. The main approaches in the study of attention.
    1. Early selection.
    2. The two stage model of the attenuation theory.
    3. Discussing the various theories to evaluate James's statement.
    4. Implications of the definition of attention by James.
  3. Practice and the ability to perform.
  4. Recognizing attention issues.
  5. Conclusion.
  6. Bibliography.

In this essay we will critically analyze the famous philosopher, William James' views on attention. James appears to be right when he describes anyone in this condition is not paying attention. When describing attention as the mind's taking possession of an object ?in clear and vivid form?, we are given a description that best suits the highest level of attention. This view, from the era of introspection, has since been empirically researched, and therefore in cognitive science we look for minimal attention in the state of distraction so vividly described in the above statement. Upon understanding James's statement, to evaluate it we must come to understand what attention is. Attention can be defined as an ability to focus and maintain interest in a given task or idea, including managing distractions.

[...] At a critical juncture during the task, material on the unattended ear was more consistent with the message on the attended ear, causing participants to frequently switch and inadvertently repeat some words from the unattended channel. Although the filter is employed to purify physical characteristics of the message such as location, pitch and intensity, some information on the unattended channel is processed. Recognition of words occurs when the intensity of the message exceeds certain thresholds. Material on the attended channel usually exceeds threshold through not being attenuated (or reduced) by the filter; however information on the unattended channel may be recognized if the words become relevant to us through having a lower threshold. [...]


[...] Using the multimode model to make a definitive statement in sympathy with both theories, one might suggest if we filter out unimportant information at an early stage of processing, then more attention remains available in order to perform more important tasks. The definition of attention by James implies we can only attend to one thing at a time. Although people try to attend to several things at once, our ability to do so is clearly limited. The capacity model of attention (Kahneman cited in) considers such cognitive limits in explaining the limits of attention, how the selection process may work and what causes failure. [...]


[...] To conclude, James made a correct statement that suits the most prevalent theories on attention to this day. When he states ?withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others?, this is supported providing the task demands a high degree of attention, illustrated by our capabilities to perform one task at a time. For his statement to be complete, James would have been required to explain the ability to perform several tasks simultaneously providing they are not attention demanding, and many tasks simultaneously providing they can be processed automatically. [...]

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