Attentional bias

Attentional bias refers to how a person's perception is affected by selective factors in their attention. Attentional biases may explain an individual's failure to consider alternative possibilities when occupied with an existing train of thought.


For example, cigarette smokers have been shown to possess an attentional bias for smoking-related cues around them, due to their brain's altered reward sensitivity. Attentional bias has also been associated with clinically relevant symptoms such as anxiety and depression.


On a scientific level, attentional bias often seen in eye-tracking movements is thought to be an underlying issue of addiction. Smokers linger on smoking cues compared with neutral cues. Researchers found higher activation in the insular cortex, the orbitofrontal cortex and the amygdala when presented with smoking cues. The orbitofrontal cortex is known to be coordinated with drug-seeking behavior and the insular cortex and amygdala are involved in the autonomic and emotional state of an individual.

Neural activity is also known to decrease upon the beginning of smoking, focusing the smokers' attention on their upcoming cigarette. Therefore, when smoking cues are nearby it is harder for a smoker to concentrate on other tasks. This is seen in the activation of the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, known for focusing attention on relevant stimuli.

However, beyond this, the mechanisms of attentional bias is an uncertain area, as there are many conflicting theories on how attentional biases operate. An initial theory was schema theory, in which it was believed schema was biased towards threats, thus threat-related material is always favored in cognitive thinking.

Conversely, other individuals have argued that humans are prone to attentional biases at certain points of information processing, which is now a more common topic of controversy.


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