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MCAT Content / Attention / Selective Attention

Selective attention

Topic: Attention

Selective attention is the ability to choose and concentrate on relevant stimuli. It is a cognitive process that makes it possible to focus on relevant stimuli and respond to it.

Selective attention can be thought of as the allocation of limited processing resources: your brain can only devote attention to a limited number of stimuli. Selective attention is demonstrated when many stimuli are present, and a person ignores the non-task-related stimuli. It is the process of focusing on a particular object in an environment for a set time whilst tuning out unimportant details or tasks. Selective attention is like a spotlight; we can use it to focus on details that are important whilst ignoring irrelevant information in our perceptions.

 In order to test how we focus this spotlight, one scientist named Donald Broadbent designed the dichotic listening task (1958). In this task, he sent two alternating messages to the test subject’s left and right ears and tested subject’s ability to attend to one side at a time. This test is still used to test selective attention.

Practice Questions

Khan Academy


MCAT Official Prep (AAMC)

Section Bank P/S Section Passage 1 Question 4

Section Bank P/S Section Passage 1 Question 5

Section Bank P/S Section Passage 1 Question 6

Practice Exam 5 P/S Section Question 26

Key Points

• Selective attention is the ability to focus on individual stimuli whilst ignoring irrelevant stimuli in the subject’s perception

• Selective attention can be tested using the dichotic listening task, first used by Donald Broadbent in the 1950’s.

Key Terms

attention: selective concentration on a discrete stimulus while ignoring other perceivable stimuli

selective attention: the ability to focus with background stimuli

dichotic listening task: test in which different auditory messages are sent to each ear, used to test selective attention

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