what is voluntary attention?

Sometimes attention takes effort and sometimes it's practically effortless. For example, it takes effort to read or write a report, listen carefully to someone, or organize your files. On the other hand, you don't have to try very hard to watch TV, play video games, or check social media; what you see and hear draws you in and keeps you there. Attention that requires your effort is called voluntary attention.

Voluntary attention builds important brain circuits called top-down pathways.  These pathways originate in your prefrontal cortex and strengthen your "executive functions" -- your abilities to plan, reason, make good decisions, regulate your emotions, manage time, resist distraction, and follow-through to achieve your goals.

When your attention is drawn to images or notifications on a screen, for instance, your effortless or low-effort response is called involuntary attention.  You use different brain circuits, called bottom-up pathways that originate in your sensory cortex. Some types of involuntary attention have the potential to help us survive -- a startle response to the horn of an oncoming car, for example. But only voluntary attention builds top-down pathways from the prefrontal lobe of the brain, that help us form habits of success.

Voluntary & involuntary attention compared

Voluntary & involuntary attention compared

Our day-to-day use of voluntary and involuntary attention is actually quite nuanced and almost all acts of attention include some degree of each. But a basic understanding of this important distinction leads to better choices, especially concerning screentime, for ourselves and our children.

the key to self-control

Ironically, this tempting ice cream sundae is a "hot" stimulus

What does saying "no" to a rich dessert, or an impulse buy, or watching another TV show have in common? To successfully resist each of these temptations, you need to be able to deliberately shift your attention away from them and onto a long-term goal that, in the big picture, is more important to you. This requires effort and is an act of voluntary attention. Sometimes called "cognitive control" or "strategic allocation of attention," your ability to exercise self-control depends on the strength of your voluntary attention.

For voluntary attention to get stronger, you need to exercise it. Much like weight resistance strengthens muscles, distraction resistance strengthens voluntary attention. Each time you deliberately move your focus away from a "hot" stimulus and onto a higher priority, you strengthen top-down brain pathways, build self-control, and gain greater freedom of choice in your life.


Technology & Voluntary attention

Technology is a power and like any power, it can help us or hurt us. We can use technology to strengthen our voluntary attention, for example, taking on-line college courses, reading e-books, and using fitness apps. (Research has shown that physical exercise is not just an analogy for mental exercise; it produces important brain chemicals that make voluntary attention easier to sustain.) Or we can allow technology to weaken our voluntary attention, by getting caught up in activities that capture our attention involuntarily.

We're surrounded by screens, our portals to instant escapism

instant relief from stress

When we're overworked, under-motivated, pre-occupied, or otherwise depleted, we need a break. If we're in an ecosystem of constant demands, there's no break in sight -- except for screens, which are everywhere.

Social media, apps and casual games are designed specifically to capture and hold our attention. In a state of mind weakened from too much pressure, involuntary attention takes over. We slip into habits of avoidance, procrastination, and escapism.

Why we resist voluntary attention

Even when we pace ourselves and manage the stress in our lives, it takes determination to face work that's repetitive or under-stimulating. According to the law of conservation of energy, because voluntary attention requires effort, we'll feel resistance to getting started or to carrying on when work gets difficult or too boring. We need to use our executive functions to anticipate our own resistance, plan ahead, apply strategies, and outsmart attention-snatchers. 

The Brain

How Habits Form your Brain

In the last few decades, much of what we believed about the brain has been overturned. One new discovery, with important implications, is that the brain continues to grow throughout life. Called "brain plasticity," this constant reshaping of the brain occurs every day, although at a much greater rate in childhood (which is why we need to protect children's brains during their most formative years).

our brains rewire themselves according to our habits. an x-ray of the living tissue of a human brain.

Plasticity works like this: Your thoughts and actions correlate with patterns of synapses in your brain. When you repeat those thoughts and actions, those patterns become pathways. For better or worse, over time, your habits shape your brain so that your brain supports your habits.

Brain scientists have a saying: "As the neuron fires, the brain rewires." In other words, the brain changes itself according to our thoughts and actions. Calling the brain "hard-wired" is outdated. Although the functioning of brains and computers are similar in some ways, the brain is organic, not mechanical. It's wrong to refer to brain structure as "hardware" and thoughts as "software." Your brain rewires itself, following the blueprint of your choices every day.

genes & learning

We start life with different aptitudes and talents that seem to be part of our DNA. But the genes that influence our temperament and traits are not the same as the genes that determine the color of our eyes. Although we're born with genetic predispositions for the way we metabolize certain brain chemicals, we each have individual learning histories that influence our path in life.

WE each have our own Unique fingerprint, Face, & brain chemistry

Our thresholds for dopamine, a brain chemical that has been implicated in our ability to resist distraction, is a good example. It appears that about 20% of the population has a genetic predisposition for a stronger-than-usual attraction to novelty. Saying "no" to an immediate, compelling reward, like well-designed apps and video games will be a greater challenge for them. But they'll have other advantages in the digital age, as they're more inclined to accept rapid change and become early adapters of new technology.

Each of us has our own unique, identifying brain chemistry, just as we have our own unique, identifying face and fingerprint. And every brain is a miracle with its own set of strengths and weaknesses, and its own challenges to face in the age of attention snatchers.

Brains Built for Success

turn on to future success by strengthening your ability to turn off a digital device.

In a landmark study called "The Marshmallow Test," psychologist Walter Mischel followed pre-schoolers through adulthood. He found that cognitive control -- the ability to strategically allocate attention -- determined success more than any other ability, including IQ. Youngsters who could turn away from a "hot" stimulus fared better later in life on a wide range of measures, including health, academic and career achievement, and relationships. Using brain imaging techniques when subjects were adults, Mischel confirmed that the parts of the brain that were the most developed in those who could say "no," were the top-down pathways associated with voluntary attention.

In other words,  your ability to power off your digital device, is your ability to power on your future success.


Dobbs, D. (2013) Restless genesNational Geographic, January, 45-57. Describes the approximately 20% of the population who appear to metabolize dopamine differently as having the "explorer" gene.

Doidge, N. (2007) The Brain That Changes Itself. (New York: Penguin Books). Learn more about brain plasticity.

Goleman, D. (2013). Focus. (New York: HarperCollins). Describes involuntary and voluntary attention by the names of their corresponding neural pathways, “bottom-up” and “top-down,” and the benefits of strong top-down pathways especially with regard to executive functions.

Katsuki, F. & Constantinidis, C. (2013). Bottom-up and top-down attention: Different processes and overlapping neural systems, Neuroscientist, December 20, doi:10.1177/1073858413514136. A scholarly article about the complexities of the neural pathways that correspond to voluntary and involuntary attention.

Mischel, W. (2014). The Marshmallow Test. (New York: Little, Brown & Company). The landmark study showing that cognitive control -- intentional, strategic allocation of attention -- predicts future life success better than any other factor.

Palladino, L.J. (1999). Dreamers, Discoverers & Dynamos(New York: Ballantine). Describes the 20% of the population who appear to metabolize dopamine differently by their profile of strengths and weaknesses that include inventiveness and divergent thinking.

Palladino, L.J. (2015). Parenting in the Age of Attention Snatchers. (Boston: Shambhala). Includes several chapters describing the impact of screentime on voluntary and involuntary attention, cognitive control, and the brain.

Pascual-Leone A. et al (2005). The plastic human brain cortex. Annual Review of Neuroscience, 28, 377–401. doi:10.1146/annurev.neuro.27.070203.144216. Human brain plasticity occurs throughout life. 

Peterson, S.E. & Posner, M (2012). The attention system of the brain: 20 years after,” Annual Review of Neuroscience, 35, 73-89. doi:10.1146/annurev-neuro-062111-150525. After two decades of brain imaging research, including an estimated 5,000 imaging papers on attention, Posner published an update of his definitive 1990 review, which had been based primarily on behavioral studies, now confirmed by the new brain imaging evidence.

Posner, M. I.  & Peterson, S. E. (1990). The attention system of the human brain. Annual Review of Neuroscience, 13, 25-42. Updated, 2012. Posner’s Tripartite “Network of Attention,” is organized by function, neurochemistry, and brain anatomy: 1. Alerting (alarm response; norepinepherine; brain stem arousal and right hemisphere) and 2. Orienting (response to sensory events; cholinergic; parietal lobe) are involuntary. In contrast, 3. Executive (effortful control; dopamine; midline frontal/anterior cingulate cortex) is voluntary.

Shulman, G. L. & Corbetta, M. (2011). Two attentional networks: Identification and function within a larger cognitive architecture. In Cognitive Neuroscience of Attention, Second Edition, ed. Michael Posner (New York: Guilford Press). A scholarly article on the neural underpinnings of the two types of attention.