A taxonomy of external and internal attention

Annu Rev Psychol. 2011:62:73-101. doi: 10.1146/annurev.psych.093008.100427.


Attention is a core property of all perceptual and cognitive operations. Given limited capacity to process competing options, attentional mechanisms select, modulate, and sustain focus on information most relevant for behavior. A significant problem, however, is that attention is so ubiquitous that it is unwieldy to study. We propose a taxonomy based on the types of information that attention operates over--the targets of attention. At the broadest level, the taxonomy distinguishes between external attention and internal attention. External attention refers to the selection and modulation of sensory information. External attention selects locations in space, points in time, or modality-specific input. Such perceptual attention can also select features defined across any of these dimensions, or object representations that integrate over space, time, and modality. Internal attention refers to the selection, modulation, and maintenance of internally generated information, such as task rules, responses, long-term memory, or working memory. Working memory, in particular, lies closest to the intersection between external and internal attention. The taxonomy provides an organizing framework that recasts classic debates, raises new issues, and frames understanding of neural mechanisms.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Attention / physiology*
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Memory / physiology*
  • Visual Perception / physiology