DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-V042-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2009
Retrieved May 22, 2024, from

3. Attention and consciousness

One influential feature of William James’s discussion is his treatment of the relation between attention and consciousness. James treats the question ‘To how many things can we attend at once?’ as equivalent to ‘the question of the span of consciousness’ and his remark that ‘my experience is what I agree to attend to’ is often taken as an early statement of the view that attention to something is necessary for consciousness of it (although that view cannot have been one that James would have endorsed since he provides a description of consciousness in the absence of attention).

The recent psychologists who follow James in taking the attention/consciousness relation to be an intimate one often regard this as enabling theories of attention to be used in casting light on the basis of consciousness (see Allport 1980). Anne Treisman, for example, suggests that descendents of her ‘feature integration’ theory of attention may provide part of the explanation for ‘the bound, unitary, interpreted, personal view of the world of subjective experience’ (Treisman 2003: 111). She tentatively proposes that the sort of explanation that such a theory provides ‘should give us all the information there is about the conditions that create consciousness’. Michael Posner is less tentative, writing, in an article entitled ‘Attention: The Mechanisms of Consciousness‘, that ‘an understanding of consciousness must rest on an appreciation of the brain networks that subserve attention, in much the same way as a scientific analysis of life without consideration of the structure of DNA would seem vacuous’ (Posner 1994: 7398).

The tradition of treating the attention/consciousness relation as an intimate one, and so of taking the study of attention as providing a route by which to investigate consciousness, has recently been put on a new footing by several experiments in which subjects show a surprisingly slight knowledge of stimuli to which they have not been paying attention. Some psychologists and philosophers (e.g. Prinz 2007) take these experiments as showing that attention is necessary for consciousness and so as vindicating the tactic of using attention-research to illuminate consciousness. The interpretation of these experiments is, however, controversial (see Schwitzgebel 2007). The project of using theories of attention to illuminate the neural correlates of consciousness also faces a further challenge since, even if attention is necessary for consciousness, the two phenomena might dissociate in the other direction: experiments with blindsight patients suggest that attention may remain intact, even when brain injury results in a loss of conscious perception. If this is so (and it too is controversial) then consciousness may not be necessary for attention and the long tradition among psychologists of moving from theories of attention to claims about consciousness may involve a mistake (see Koch and Tsuchiya 2007).

Citing this article:
Mole, Christopher. Attention and consciousness. Attention, 2009, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-V042-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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