Many theories of learning provide no role for learned selective attention (e.g., Anderson, 1991; Pearce, 1994; Rehder & Murphy, 2003). Selective attention is crucial, however, for explaining many phenomena in learning. The mechanism of selective attention in learning is also well motivated by its ability to minimize proactive interference and enhance generalization, thereby accelerating learning. Therefore, not only does the mechanism help explain behavioural phenomena, it makes sense that it should have evolved (Kruschke & Hullinger, 2010).
The phrase ‘learned selective attention’ denotes three qualities. First, ‘attention’ means the amplification or attenuation of the processing of stimuli. Second, ‘selective’ refers to differentially amplifying and/or attenuating a subset of the components of the stimulus. This selectivity within a stimulus is different from attenuating or amplifying all aspects of a stimulus simultaneously (cf. Larrauri & Schmajuk, 2008). Third, ‘learned’ denotes the idea that the allocation of selective processing is retained for future use. The allocation may be context sensitive, so that attention is allocated differently in different contexts.
There are many phenomena in human and animal learning that suggest the involvement of learned selective attention. The first part of this chapter briefly reviews some of those phenomena. The emphasis of the chapter is not the empirical phenomena, however. Instead, the focus is on a collection of models that formally express theories of learned attention. These models will be surveyed subsequently.