Science of Selective Attention: How We Filter Information and Why It Matters

Osheen Jain
6 min readFeb 18


A cactus in a small orange pot on a light pink background
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

As John walks to work on a busy street, he can notice the sound of car horns, people crossing streets, customers grabbing breakfast, children shouting, dogs barking, the smell of fresh coffee, and much more.

If John responds to every sensory stimulation, it will overwhelm him, and he won’t be able to focus on the route to reach his destination.

Just look around and try to comprehend every sensory stimulus your brain has been ignoring as you read this article. You don’t feel the weight of your phone, taste in your mouth, sound from the street or next door, and so on.

Our brains have been amazing at filtering certain information while responding promptly to relevant stimuli.

This filtering process of irrelevant stimulation is called Selective Attention. It is a cognitive process that helps us to prioritize and manage incoming information.

John can focus on the task at hand and tune out the noise and distractions of the street. He uses selective attention to filter out the irrelevant noise and stay focused on getting to work.

But does it stop here?

Once he arrives at work, he can quickly switch to different relevant stimuli and effectively complete his tasks. He is again using selective attention to prioritize and manage his work tasks.

He can ignore the colour of the walls, chatter from the break room, gossip from the next cubicle, the feel of his clothes, and the taste of tea in his mouth.

John is somewhere aware of his surroundings, but without ignoring irrelevant inputs, he won’t be able to comprehend anything.

The phenomenon of selective attention is essential for our daily functioning and has far-reaching implications for decision-making, marketing, and more.

In this article, we’ll explore the neuroscience behind selective attention, discuss its impact on decision-making, and suggest strategies for improving our ability to filter information.

What is selective attention?

We use selective attention to focus on specific tasks, such as studying for an exam or listening to a presentation. It is an important part of our daily functioning, as it helps us to filter out irrelevant information and stay on task.

Selective attention is not just a cognitive process; it also involves the physiological systems of our body. When we focus on something, our body releases hormones such as adrenaline, which helps us stay alert and focused. This response also helps us to filter out irrelevant information and stay on task.

Some fun selective attention tasks

Try these fun selective attention tasks and see how attentive you are:

1. Guess the Right Cup

Did you correctly guess the cup?

But your brain possibly overlooked other changes happening simultaneously. Go and watch that again.

Did you notice the appearance of a duck, the addition of a fifth hand, and the colour of the cups?

An intriguing phenomenon, innit?

Here’s another example.

2. Who is the murderer?

If you did find out who the murderer was, did you notice what else was happening?

3. The Invisible Gorilla

Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris created the famous awareness test, The Invisible Gorilla. In this experiment, it was found that half of the people who counted the passes missed the gorilla as if it were invisible.

The neuroscience behind selective attention

The neuroscience behind selective attention is a complex and fascinating field of study. Scientists have been researching the biological mechanisms of selective attention for decades and have made many important discoveries.

The brain is divided into two hemispheres — the left and the right — and each hemisphere is responsible for certain functions. The left hemisphere is responsible for language and logical thinking, while the right hemisphere is responsible for creative thinking and emotions. Some studies have shown that the brain's right hemisphere heavily influences selective attention.

The brain’s prefrontal cortex is also important for selective attention. It is responsible for decision-making and is involved in filtering out irrelevant information. The prefrontal cortex also releases hormones, such as adrenaline, which help us stay focused.

Recent research suggests that the neurotransmitter dopamine influences selective attention. Dopamine is involved in reward-related behavior and is released when we experience pleasure or satisfaction. It is believed that dopamine helps us to stay focused on certain tasks or stimuli, while blocking out distracting stimuli.

The impact of selective attention on decision-making

Selective attention plays an important role in decision-making. It helps us to focus on relevant information and prioritize tasks. It also helps us ignore irrelevant information and distractions, making decision-making easier.

When making decisions, we often rely on our intuition and gut instinct. This is because our brains are hardwired to make quick decisions based on our past experiences and the information we have filtered out. Selective attention helps us to do this by allowing us to focus on relevant information and ignore irrelevant information.

Selective attention also helps us to make better decisions. We can focus on the task by filtering out distracting information and making more informed decisions. For example, a doctor may filter out the irrelevant noise in an operating room to focus on the task at hand and make more accurate diagnoses.

How to use selective attention theory in marketing

Selective attention theory suggests that people tend to pay attention to information that is relevant to their goals or interests while ignoring information that is not. Companies can use this theory to capture consumers’ attention and increase the effectiveness of advertising.

One way to use selective attention theory in marketing is to create advertising that is tailored to the interests and goals of the target audience. For example, if you’re a company selling outdoor gear, the most creative advertisement can be to show people using your products in scenic outdoor locations. This would be more likely to catch the attention of tiger who enjoy outdoor activities and are interested in buying outdoor gear.

Another way to use selective attention theory in marketing is to create advertising that stands out from the surrounding environment. For example, a brightly colored advertisement in a predominantly gray or white environment is more likely to catch people’s attention. Similarly, an advertisement with a unique or unexpected message or design is more likely to capture attention.

Overall, understanding and utilizing selective attention theory in marketing can help companies create more effective and targeted advertising that resonates with their target audience.

Strategies for improving selective attention

Improving our ability to filter out irrelevant information is essential for decision-making and productivity. Here are some strategies for improving selective attention:

  1. Practice mindfulness and meditation: Mindfulness and meditation can help to improve our focus and concentration by allowing us to tune out distractions and focus on the task at hand. In fact, a randomized control trial showed a mindfulness-based intervention's positive effect on sustained and selective attention in young athletes in a school setting.
  2. Exercise: Exercise can help improve our ability to concentrate by releasing endorphins, hormones that help improve our mental clarity and focus. A study showed how short HIIT sets improved selective attention in university students, and another showed how high-intensity interval activity improves selective attention in 9-to 11-year-olds.
  3. Take regular breaks: Taking regular breaks, such as taking a walk or taking a few minutes to relax, can help us to stay focused and improve our ability to filter out distractions. A pilot study was conducted to see the impact of movement breaks and showed improved selective attention in sixth-grade students in a general education setting.

Were you paying attention?

Did you happen to notice a sneaky substitution in the article: ‘people’ replaced with ‘tiger’? Or did your brain simply skip over the change without realizing it?

Selective attention is an essential cognitive process that helps us to prioritize and manage incoming information. It is heavily influenced by the physiology of our brain and has far-reaching implications for decision-making, marketing, and more.

By understanding the neuroscience behind selective attention and implementing strategies for improving our ability to filter out irrelevant information, we can improve our decision-making and productivity.

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Osheen Jain

Content creator. Computational Neuroscientist in Making. I write mostly on productivity, AI, cognitive science, and Neural Nets.