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Covert Attention: Definition & Example

Instructor: Gaines Arnold
Attention, which can be divided into overt (openly seen) and covert (akin to secret), is split because people see objects that are right in front of them and on the periphery. This lesson explores covert attention and offers several examples of how it is used.

Using Covert Attention to Play the Entire Field

When Bart started playing video games, his buddies laughed at him because he was so easily eliminated. They loved to play when Bart was around; his failure fed their egos. Bart didn't like losing and decided to do everything he could to get better. He practiced as much as he was allowed to at home, focusing on how he could improve his gaming skills. His buddies started to notice the difference and so did Bart. He also understood the reason why he was becoming a better player. Over time, he learned to see the whole field of the game without trying to focus on each part of the field. He could focus on what was directly in front of his shooter, while, at the same time, seeing everything else that was going on within the game. His attention field had expanded so that while he was seemingly completely focused on what was in front of him, he could also clearly see what was outside of his direct range of vision. He had learned to use covert attention to his advantage.

Types of Attention

How does a running back keep focused on the hole in front of him while avoiding the tackle coming up from his side? How do people playing video games shoot someone on the side of the screen while keeping their eyes focused on what is in front of them? How does a driver detect a child entering the roadway while they are focused on the road ahead?

People use two different types of focus, or attention (also called orienting), when they look at their surrounding environment. Overt attention is that which is obvious. When a person moves his or her head in the direction of an object, they are paying overt attention to the object. Covert attention is allowing the brain to attend to an object without moving the eyes toward that object. Thus, the individual is paying attention, but it is in a way that is not readily apparent to anyone else.

Why is this Important?

Covert attention is greatly affected by an individual's peripheral vision. This is how far vision extends from the center of focus. To determine if a person's peripheral vision is within the normal range, an eye doctor will ask a patient to stay focused on a central point then find out if they can see a light flashing either far to their right or left. If an individual has deficits in their peripheral sensing, it can indicate other problems. Being able to grasp objects or feel secure when walking along a path are both contingent on covert orienting.

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