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Attention and Self-regulation

Richard Chambers

Attentional deficit or dysfunction has been implicated in higher-level cognitive disorders and symptoms as diverse as neglect, schizophrenia, closed-head injury, attention-deficit disorder (Posner & Peterson, 1990), depression (Strauman, 2002; Depue & Collins, 1999), anxiety (Wells, 2002), and rumination (Treynor, Gonzales & Nolen-Hoeksema, 2003). Conversely, attentional control, which may be strengthened through training, has been demonstrated to have an ameliorating effect in these symptom domains (Rueda, Posner & Rothbart, 2004). It has been proposed that this relationship may be mediated by an apparent increase in self-regulation (Rueda, Posner & Rothbart, 2004; Mischel & Ayduk, 2002; Ruff & Rothbart, 1996). Indeed, Fonagy and Target (2002) suggest that self-regulation refers to people's ability to "(1) control the reaction to stress, (2) maintain focused attention, [and] (3) interpret mental states in themselves and others (p.307, emphasis added), all of which can be seen to rely on attentional mechanisms.

Self-regulation has been suggested to operate through a process of feedback control, whereby behaviour is continually monitored and adjusted so as to approach, or sometimes avoid, particular goal representations (Carver, 2004). Simon (1967) has suggested that affect (emotion) arises in response to nonfocal goals - those outside awareness - which become momentarily important, drawing attention to them by increasing their relative priority in our consciousness. The stronger the emotion, the more priority the goal is given, and the more attentional resources are allocated to it.

Attention itself is an enormous and contentious area of investigation (Wells & Matthews, 1994), and full elucidation is beyond the present scope (for a review, see Posner, 1995; Posner & Peterson, 1990). However, the following is a brief overview of the evolution of attentional research.

Prior to the 1970s, researchers tended to view attention in terms of a "bottleneck", whereby a limited capacity system filtered incoming sensory and cognitive data to extract relevant information. What was not selected was assumed to be lost to conscious processing (Wells & Matthews, 1994; Posner & Peterson, 1990). More recently, a "spotlight" model has emerged (Posner & Peterson, 1990), in which attention is seen as a system for prioritising motor acts, consciousness and memory, and a distinction is made between automatic and controlled processing (Posner, 1995). It is currently conceptualised as a network of brain areas that perform different functions, can be specified in cognitive terms, and are anatomically distinct from the data processing system that operates on specific inputs (Posner & Peterson, 1990). Most importantly, this model suggests that rather than being lost, anything which is not focused upon remains in the background, ready to be accessed, and may indirectly influence both automatic and controlled processing.

In sum, it would appear that self-regulation may rely on attentional mechanisms, and mediate the influence of these on psychological wellbeing. Therefore, it is suggested here that interventions which seek to enhance psychological wellbeing arguably need to identify and target these attentional mechanisms.

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