Attention and cognitive control of behaviour

Attention and cognitive control of behaviour
We like to believe our behaviour is entirely under our control, but science reveals a balance between the unconscious, automatic processes of our brains and our voluntary control and regulation of those processes.
Professor, School of Psychology and Queensland Brain Institute, University of Queensland, Australia

Early childhood development / Learning difficulties / Emotions and learning

This brief arises from Science of Learning fellowships, funded by UNESCO International Bureau of Education (IBE) and the International Brain Research Organization (IBRO). The IBE-UNESCO/IBRO Science of Learning Fellowships aim to support and translate key neuroscience research on learning and the brain to educators, policymakers, and governments.

Executive Summary

  • Our brains have limited capacity for attention and information processing. Our ability to multi-task and divide attention is always limited, as the resources that we devote to one task will always limit the remaining brain resources available for other tasks. So we cannot expect learners to concentrate on many things at once.
  • Our brains are hard-wired to rapidly and involuntary shift attention to sudden or unexpected changes around us and to divert some of our limited brain processing resources to those distractions. This is the reason why, of course, we need to minimize distractions in the classroom. Distractions that involuntarily capture attention impose an additional brain load that then limits the remaining capacity for learning.
  • Children are still developing their abilities for inhibitory control, which depend on their age. Not all failures to maintain appropriate behaviour are from the child’s conscious volitional choice, but may be lapses in their inhibitory control.
  • All behaviour is a balance between unconscious and automatic processes of the brain and our voluntary control and regulation of those processes. Educators should be aware of the unconscious drives that could be competing motivations for the child’s attention and behaviour.


Humans have an illusion that all our behavior is under our conscious voluntary control. So much so that we have very strong expectations that people will behave in socially and culturally appropriate ways at all times and we can be quite unforgiving towards people who violate these expectations. This is a major reason for the stigma and lack of understanding that is unfortunately common towards people with mental health problems who can experience difficulties in appropriately regulating their behaviour.

We are biological creatures that have evolved and we live under the same pressures of natural selection as all other life. We have a whole range of unconscious biological drives, needs, and urges that influence our behavior. Of course, we also do have conscious voluntary control and can make our own deliberate choices and decisions over our behavior.

The way that humans act in the world is therefore a combination of these unconscious biological drives and our voluntary conscious control. These factors are known respectively as bottom up and top down influences on behavior and are crucial factors of attention and cognitive control.

Ultimately, the control of our behavior is a high-level cognitive skill that relies on functioning of the frontal lobes of the brain. It is a skill that develops over time with experience and with maturation of the frontal lobes through childhood and into adolescence.

Frontal and parietal lobes.

The frontal and parietal lobes occupy the largest proportion of the human brain and are more highly developed in humans than in any other species. They are crucial for the functions of our brain that govern almost all everyday behaviour, including our attention, our sense of objects, people, and places around us, our reasoning, setting goals and intentions, and selecting appropriate actions1.

The frontal lobes also contain the motor areas of the brain that are responsible for all body movement, through signalling and control contractions of muscles of the body. If you think about it, the only way that we can have any influence on the world around us is through muscle contractions causing movement. All of our actions, our speech and language through articulation, even our eye movements to explore the world around us, all depend on contractions of muscles of the body. These are all controlled by the motor areas in the posterior part of the frontal lobes.

The most frontal anterior part of the frontal lobes is known as the prefrontal cortex, and is responsible for all higher-order thought and reasoning, setting goals and intentions, and selecting appropriate actions and behaviours. Behind the frontal lobes, from the centre to the back of the brain, are the parietal lobes that are crucial for attention and for our sense of the world around us.

Together, the parietal and prefrontal cortices interact to control our focus of attention, our sense of the objects, people, and places around us for guiding our actions, and for selecting appropriate actions and behaviours given our current situation or goals. These selected actions are then passed on to the motor areas where they are instantiated.

Top-down and bottom-up processes

Our perceptions of the world and our choices of behaviours are all a combination of automatic unconscious influences and conscious voluntary choices or control. These are known as bottom-up and top-down processes respectively.

Bottom-up refers to processes in the brain that are driven by external stimuli or events, coming into the brain through our senses, or our unconscious biological drives that give us urges to act in particular ways.

Top-down refers to our conscious voluntary control processes or choices to guide our attention or behaviour, or the influence of our prior knowledge or experience on the way we perceive the world.

Generally, we consider all of the information about the external world, coming through our senses, or about our internal states that automatically drive brain processes as bottom up. We can then choose the exert top-down control how that information is processed, what we choose to focus on, and what we ultimately select as appropriate behaviours. If we lack some top-down control, and are driven primarily by bottom-up processes, we will behave in very reactive ways to external events and our biological drives.

For example, a baby will cry when it is hungry, or cold, or uncomfortable as a reactive response to the bottom-up signals from their body. This is not a result of their conscious choice to select crying as the most appropriate action given their current goals and situation, as they have not adequately developed their frontal lobe function for this high level cognitive control of their behaviour. On the other hand, a hungry adult faced with a delicious looking chocolate cake is likely to feel some urge to eat the delicious cake, but can usually choose whether to devour the chocolate goodness or exert top-down control and choose an alternate action. However, it is not that cut and dry. Many behaviours can incorporate a blend of bottom-up processing of external stimuli along with implementations of top-down conceptual knowledge and memories2. It can be seen in addictive behaviours, such as smoking, that while smokers tend to struggle to quit, most can3. Although the desire to smoke often arises involuntarily and addiction can change patterns of motivation, the behaviour itself is voluntary and under conscious top-down control. The level of voluntary control humans have is still debated by professionals.

Almost all functions of the parietal and prefrontal cortex, for attention and regulation of our behaviour, involve a balance of top-down and bottom-up processes.

Attention and information processing in the brain

William James, who is commonly considered the father of experimental psychology, famously said that “everyone knows what attention is” (1870). Attention is such a common word in our everyday language and used in many different ways, in phrases such as, “Pay attention …”, “I am attending to that now …”, “That child just wants attention …” The problem in psychology is that to understand attention, and in particular to understand the underlying brain processes, we need to carefully define what we actually mean by attention.

In brain sciences, we generally consider attention as a filter used to select and prioritise information for processing in the brain4. There is constantly so much information coming into our brain, through our senses, that our brain cannot possibly process everything to deliver all to our conscious awareness. Although our brain has immense capacity, with billions of neurons and millions and billions of connections, its capacity for processing incoming information from our senses is still limited. We therefore use attention to select and prioritise what is most important for us.

For example, as you read, there are many signals coming into your brain of which you are unaware, such as the way you are breathing, how the chair feels against your body, any ambient sounds, smells, the room temperature, how hungry or thirsty you feel. These signals are still coming into your brain, and as soon as you direct your attention toward them you become aware, but they are not processed fully by your brain all of the time. We therefore use attention to select and prioritise what is most important for our limited brain processing resources at any time.

For this reason, our ability to multi-task is also always going to be limited. We simply do not have the capacity to devote brain processing resources and our awareness to all information around us simultaneously. Usually, when we believe we are multi-tasking, we are really switching attention between different tasks and not performing any of them as effectively as we would if they had our complete focus5. For example, even talking hands-free on the telephone when driving is known to impair driving performance, said to be equivalent to a blood alcohol level of 0.08, above the legal limit for driving in most places6. The cognitive resources needed for holding a conversation on the phone limit the remaining brain processing resources that are available to direct towards driving.

In selecting our focus of attention, we can attend to particular channels of information from our senses, we can attend to particular locations in the space around us, and we can attend to particular features of items that are relevant for us7. For example, if we are looking on a cluttered desktop for our keys that have a red tag, we will concentrate on our vision, we will focus particularly on small red things, and we will scan around the desktop progressing shifting our focus to one location at a time.

Our attention can therefore be set to prioritise processing of particular features, such as red things, and directed to particular locations in space, as in a moving spotlight. If we are watching television, for example, our attention “spotlight” will be focused in that direction; we will be more aware of other things that may be near the television and less aware of things that are further away. Similarly, if we are searching for our red key-tag, our attention will be selectively set for red things; we will be more aware of other red things, and those may distract us in our search, and less aware of things that are very different in colour from red.

These aspects of selective attention are all voluntary and consciously controlled, reflecting top-down processes. Our attention can also be involuntarily and automatically captured bottom-up by highly salient stimuli or sudden and unexpected events around us. This is a biological trait that is important for us for our survival; we need to be rapidly aware of any sudden or unexpected events in our environment as they could signify threat or danger, as when a wild animal jumps out from the bushes near us. However, any events that involuntarily capture our attention also take a share of our brain processing resources and distract us from the main task of our focus.

This is well demonstrated by the cocktail party effect8. At a party when there are many people talking at once, we can choose to selectively attend to one person, to concentrate on what they are saying, and to filter out the rest. However, if another person behind us suddenly mentions our name, even though we were not consciously listening to their conversation, we may suddenly become aware of what they are saying, and this will distract us from our current conversation.

Attention therefore involves both top-down voluntary controlled and bottom-up involuntary automatic processes that lead to prioritising of the information that is processed by our brain. So while bottom-up capture of our attention is important for us to be able to rapidly detect relevant and unexpected events around us, top-down control of our attention is crucially important to be able to maintain our focus on the task at hand and prevent distraction.

Cognitive control of behaviour

All voluntary control of behaviour, over our attention, our biological drives and urges, and our selection of appropriate actions, relies on functioning of the prefrontal cortex. Importantly, cognitive control of behaviour relies not only on selecting appropriate or desired actions, but also suppressing and inhibiting competing alternatives or inappropriate actions.

Inhibitory control is therefore a crucial function of the frontal lobes for consciously controlling behaviour. It is necessary particularly when switching from one task to another, for preventing distraction, and for suppressing unconscious and biological influences on behaviour that lead to particular urges that may not be appropriate given the situation.

Many common mental health problems are associated with impairments in inhibitory control. For example, children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) will act impulsively and have difficulty preventing distraction to maintain attention on their task9. Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) involves repetitive and compulsive behaviours that cannot be suppressed, such as constantly washing hands or checking for safety10. There are also many behavioural addictions related to reward seeking such as gambling, computer gaming, pornography, and shopping.

Failures of inhibitory control can be seen when people suffer damage to their frontal lobes. For example, Phineas Gage was a railway worker in the 1840’s who, through a terrible accident, had an iron tamping rod penetrate through his skull severely damaging his frontal lobes11. Remarkably, Gage remained conscious and survived the accident, living for a further 20 years. As a result of his damaged frontal lobes, however, Gage was reported to have changed completely in his temperament. As written by his physician, Dr. John Harlow, “He is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not normally his custom), manifesting little but deference to his fellows …”12 Gage’s apparent change in personality is clearly not from voluntary choice, but from an impairment in his inhibitory control to maintain regulation of more appropriate behaviour.

Inhibitory control and the cognitive control of behaviour is a skill that develops over time, with experience and with maturation of the frontal lobes. The difficulty that children have with inhibitory control is apparent in the common children’s game “Simon says”. In this game, a leader gives children simple instructions for actions, and children are only to follow the action when the instructions are preceded by “Simon says …” (e.g. Simon says touch your nose). Infrequently, the leader will give the instruction without “Simon says …” (e.g. touch your nose) and children must not make the action. This is a particular test of inhibitory control, to switch from the usual response of following the instruction and to inhibit the action. Although (mostly) children are highly motivated to try, as always some fail in their inhibitory control and are out of the game.

Studies show that inhibitory control improves gradually over time throughout childhood and adolescence13. Interestingly, very young infants are able voluntarily inhibit responses some of the time, so the ability is clearly present in the brain from early in life. With maturation, however, children become more able to consistently exert inhibitory control and better regulate their behaviour. Studies have suggested that inhibitory control abilities start to plateau and approach adult levels after about 14-15 years of age14.

The cognitive control of behaviour therefore involves both selecting appropriate actions, given the current goal, and inhibiting alternate or competing behaviours. This is a skill that relies on functioning of the frontal lobes and develops over time throughout childhood and adolescence.

Implications for education

Attention and the regulation of behaviour are, of course, critical in the classroom for children’s learning. As these are such fundamental aspects of human behaviour, generally we intuitively know these issues around attention and cognitive control.


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