Conscious Attention


Shirin, Abbas Kiarostami, 2008

by Cain Todd

Attention: Philosophical and Psychological Essays,
by C. Mole, D. Smithies, W. Wu (eds.),
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010

Are you paying attention to this? William James, the oft-called father of modern psychology, famously said that everyone knows what attention is, so if you are reading this sentence right now then not only are you paying attention to it, but you should know that that is exactly what you’re doing. After all, you surely know when you are not paying attention to something, don’t you? It has, however, proved remarkably difficult to demonstrate just what attention is: what neurological mechanisms it can be identified with, what psychological processes it involves, and even to describe what its phenomenological profile is like; that is, what it is like from our own subjective point of view to be paying attention to something. There has been much recent work on these issues in philosophy and psychology and it has proved an uncommonly fruitful area of interconnection between the two disciplines, as highlighted in this recent volume.

One of the foremost areas of research concerns the relationship between consciousness and attention. For large periods of the twentieth century, psychologists held that the study of consciousness could either be elucidated by or even reduced to the study of attention. Unfortunately, as Alan Allport points out (in Chapter 2 of this volume) the phenomenon of attention has proved to be not much less elusive than the nature of consciousness itself. This has been taken by some to indicate that attention should not be thought of as a single mechanism but rather, as Christopher Mole argues (Chapter 3), as the way in which whatever brain processes are involved in attention amount to what he calls ‘cognitive unison’. Attention is not one ‘thing’, but rather, as Sebastian Watzl puts it (Chapter 7) an organisational feature of experience.

Whatever one’s metaphysical views about the nature of attention, a range of recent fascinating psychological experiments seems to cast doubt even on some of our most fundamental common sense conceptions of it. It seems obvious that visual attention involves focussing on some object in our visual field while the rest of this field fades more or less into the periphery of our conscious visual awareness. In other words, attention does not seem to be necessary for consciousness, since we can be consciously aware to some degree of the things to which we’re not paying attention. But then, how do you know that you are not consciously aware of the objects to which you are apparently not attending simply because you are, say, rapidly (perhaps unconsciously) shifting your attention to them?

Consider this remarkable experiment on ‘inattentional blindness’ conducted by Simon and Chabris [Spoiler alert! Watch the clips on David Simon’s website before reading]:

Subjects watch a 75 second videotape of two teams (one in white, one in black) of players passing a basketball around, with the instruction that they should count the number of passes made by one of the two teams. Filmed in live action with a single camera roughly half the test subjects failed to notice that a person in a gorilla suit stepped into the middle of the visual display and beat its chest before leaving the court, all of which took about 9 seconds. Too busy counting the passes, we miss even the large gorilla in the centre of our vision. Other familiar experiments demonstrate similar, surprising failures of awareness while attending to other tasks. [See also many of the ‘change blindness’ and other videos].

So perhaps, contra common sense, attention is necessary for consciousness after all, and we are simply mistaken to think we can be consciously aware of things to which we’re not paying attention. Conversely, doubt has also been cast on the intuitive, seemingly obvious claim that in order to attend we need to be conscious of what we’re attending to. In the neurological disorder called ‘blindsight’, for example, injury to the primary visual cortex prevents people from consciously seeing things presented in the relevant part of the visual field, yet a number of studies have shown that blindsighters can correctly ‘guess’ – that is, do better than chance – the location of objects presented in this field. This data has been taken by some psychologists, though by few philosophers, to suggest that such subjects can attend to objects or locations of which they are not consciously aware.

Needless to say, a number of people, while impressed with the empirical results of such experiments, have disputed the interpretation of them. Although in Chapter 8, Jesse Prinz argues for the strong view that attention is both necessary and sufficient for consciousness, others have suggested that the inattentional blindness data shows merely that attention is necessary for consciousness not to be inchoate, or is required for certain information to be accessible to conscious awareness.

These kinds of responses open the way to exploring the various connections between attention and cognition, in particular the role of attention in grounding or justifying certain concepts and conceptual abilities. Declan Smithies (Chapter 11), for example, holds that part of the function of attention is to allow us to form rationally accessible justified beliefs about objects of awareness, while Imogen Dickie (Chapter 13) and John Campbell (Chapter 14) also explore the role of attention in demonstrative thought and access to the objects of awareness.

There is no hiding the fact that much of the philosophical discussion, while using the psychological experimental data as a departure point, can quickly become relatively narrow and technical, and few of the psychological papers are readily accessible to the non-specialist. A large part of the difficulty in this area clearly stems from comparing two more or less equally obscure notions – consciousness and attention – in order to illuminate each other. Nonetheless, this collection does a good job of representing cutting-edge research on the nature of attention and in revealing the absolutely fundamental and ubiquitous role it plays in the life of conscious beings. In the process it offers come intriguing correctives to common sense and reveals how easily we can be mistaken about our own conscious experiences.

About the Author:

Cain Todd is Lecturer in Philosophy at Lancaster University. His principal research concerns issues in aesthetics that have connections to issues in ethics, philosophy of mind, and epistemology.