In disciplines such as cognitive psychology and neuropsychology, the term Attention means a highly complex, multifaceted cognitive process of selection that influences nearly all human activities. Interest in this subject dates from ancient times. By comparison, human factors specialists in aviation have pursued this subject for a few decades in their search for effective countermeasures against repetitive types of aircraft accidents.

Attention deserves careful study by flight operations safety specialists as one of the foundations of risk-management concepts. It leads into concepts such as situational awareness, vigilance, mental focus, the culture of aviation professionalism, mindfulness, complacency, inattention, lapses of concentration, and attention-deficit disorders — whether on the flight deck or in the cabin, in air traffic control facilities or in other flight-related work environments.

Guidance compiled by a European task force beginning in 2009, said, “Without attention, we could not selectively process information and discriminate important information from the unimportant ‘noise’ that surrounds us. … Over the last few years, attention and vigilance studies have become recognized as vitally important to human factors, especially in aviation, because of the growing use of automation in modern aircraft. [Automation] monitoring activity requires a great deal of attention and vigilance on the part of the crew.”

A key reason to periodically revisit our assumptions about attention is that conceptual frameworks and cognitive theories keep evolving. They exist in a context of experimental advances, treatment of attention-deficit disorders, brain-imaging medical technology and how functions of the brain affect human performance and limitations.


The previously noted task force guidance said that, practically speaking, slight variations among scientific fields — i.e., in precisely how researchers in different fields define attention — have been relatively inconsequential to aviation safety specialists. “All of the definitions … share the central theme of attention involving the concentration of thinking (cognitive processes) on a single object or thought to the exclusion of other stimuli or thoughts,” the guidance said. “In simpler terms, attention is the ability to focus and maintain interest in a given task or idea while avoiding distractions.”

Concepts from definitions of attention cited as beneficial to aviation human factors include: overt attention versus covert attention; selective attention; controlled and automatic attention processes; sustained attention (see Attention Span); alternating attention; and divided attention.

According to a least one reference, the term Attention lacks a standard, universally accepted definition. “Nonetheless, most psychologists agree that the brain has some inherent limitations to the amount of information that it can process,” the authors said. “These limitations mean that to function effectively, we must have a way of filtering or selecting particular information, whether it be from the vast array of incoming sensory information that impinges upon our brain every moment of the day or from the many responses that can be given in any particular situation. In discussing attention, cognitive psychologists often divide it into four general categories: alertness and arousal, sustained attention (vigilance), selective attention, and resources (capacity [for information processing]).” (From Neuropsychology: The Neural Bases of Mental Function, by Marie T. Banich, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997.)

Debates About Attention

Some scientists conducting research on attention during the last 10 years have proposed alternative or modified theories. Some proposals reflect philosophical debates about the validity of attention-focused experiments using brain-imaging and other medical technology versus the validity of findings from experiments using other methods.

Although the following examples do not address aviation human factors, they offer a glimpse into future academic interests in Attention:

  • Conscious experience is separate from cognitive functions — The researchers said, “Numerous influential theories hold that conscious experience has its own neural underpinnings that can be separated from all cognitive functions (i.e., attention, working memory, language, decision making, motivation, etc.). … Although the details of these theories vary, they all assert that conscious experience and cognitive functions have distinct neural correlates [i.e., brain activity].

“The world beyond focal attention is not in darkness … when attention is not entirely engaged by a primary task. … It is inaccurate to say that information outside the focus of attention receives zero attention. Information not processed by focal attention can nevertheless be the target of other types of attention: distributed, featural, spatial, internal and so on.” (“Consciousness Cannot Be Separated From Function” by Michael A. Cohen and Daniel C. Dennett, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Vol. 15, No. 8, August 2011)

  • Attention and awareness are “related yet different” — The authors said, “Most researchers closely link attention with awareness (equated here with the contents of conscious experience), arguing that the two always occur together. That is, attending to an object is the same as becoming conscious of it. Yet, a minority tradition in psychology, going back to the 19th century, emphasizes that attention and consciousness are related yet different, and that one can attend to an object or feature of an object without becoming aware of it.” (“Attention and Consciousness: Related Yet Different” by Christof Koch and Naotsugu Tsuchiya, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Vol. 16, No. 2, February 2012)
  • Consciousness does not presume attention — The authors said, “Common sense makes a fundamental distinction between attention and consciousness. … People conceive of attention as more selective than consciousness, whereas they think of consciousness itself as an experiential state. … The results of selection are always conscious, whereas the processes of selecting, deselecting, and maintaining selection may or may not be conscious.” (“Attention Versus Consciousness in the Visual Brain: Differences in Conception, Phenomenology, Behavior, Neuroanatomy, and Physiology” by Bernard J. Baars, The Journal of General Psychology, 1999, 126[3], 224-233)

Hazards and Effects

In one example of related human factors research, the researchers studied the role of airline pilot expertise in flight deck decision making. They quantified attention as a variable (among others) in an experimental model to study subjects’ performance of tasks and their response to unexpected events in a full-flight simulator.

In their summary of practical implications, the authors said, “Our findings link attention (measured by eye tracking) with decision-making outcomes as a source of expertise-related benefits among pilots. If experts or non-experts notice a single diagnostic cue, they often can respond appropriately, but experts are more likely to notice and respond to problems indicated by patterns of cues. This link has several implications for pilot training — [suggesting] the value of eye-tracking for pilot training.

“For example, eye-tracking records could be used to provide feedback to pilots about their scanning strategies during flight and may help in objectively evaluating training effects related to attentional strategy.” (In “Expertise Differences in Attentional Strategies Related to Pilot Decision Making” by Angela T. Schriver, Daniel G. Morrow, Christopher D. Wickens, and Donald A. Talleur, Critical Essays on Human Factors in Aviation; Don Harris and Wen-Chin Li, editors, Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2015.)

Accidents & Incidents

The following fatal commercial air transport accidents involving loss of control–in flight — each involving aspects of attention among its causal factors — indicate the types of unfinished work surrounding the subject of Attention.

  • A332, en-route, Atlantic Ocean, 2009 — On 1 June 2009, an Airbus A330-200 being operated by Air France on a scheduled passenger flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris CDG as AF447 exited controlled flight and crashed into the sea with the loss of the aircraft and all 228 occupants. It was found that the loss of control followed an inappropriate response by the flight crew to a transient loss of airspeed indications in the cruise which resulted from the vulnerability of the pitot heads to ice crystal icing.
  • DH8D, vicinity Buffalo NY USA, 2009 — On 12 February 2009, a Bombardier DHC-8-400 on a night ILS approach to Buffalo-Niagara airport departed controlled flight and was completely destroyed by ground impact and subsequent fire. The Investigation found that the Captain had failed to effectively manage the flight and that his consequent response to a resulting stick shaker activation had been completely contrary to applicable procedures and his training, leading directly to the loss of the aircraft. The aircraft operator’s normal approach procedures were also determined to be inadequate and it was noted that prior to the accident, sterile flight deck procedures had been comprehensively ignored.
  • B772, San Francisco CA USA, 2013 — On 6 July 2013, an Asiana Boeing 777-200 descended below the visual glidepath on short finals at San Francisco after the pilots failed to notice that their actions had reduced thrust to idle. Upon late recognition that the aircraft was too low and slow, they were unable to recover before the aircraft hit the sea wall and the tail detached. Control was lost and the fuselage eventually hit the ground. A few occupants were ejected at impact but most managed to evacuate subsequently and before fire took hold. The Probable Cause of the accident was determined to be the mismanagement of the aircraft by the pilots.


  • Operator's Guide to Human Factors in Aviation (OGHFA)

Flight Safety Foundation (FSF)

Commercial Aviation Safety Team (CAST)

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