DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-V042-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2017
Retrieved March 23, 2019, from

6. Attention and Action

Broadbent took it that attention is essentially involved in the management of limitations in our capacity for cognitive processing. Many psychologists continue to accept this idea. Others have looked for alternatives. One of these alternatives is based on the thought that the allocation of attention may be required, not because we have a limited capacity for cognitive processing, but because our capacity for different sorts of cognitive processing is so large. Because we have diverse cognitive capacities, and because we have several ways of acting, there will typically be lots of different things that we can do, in response to any given environment. For creatures with so large a repertoire of possible responses, some form of selectivity will always be required, in order for a coherent course of action to be maintained.

This idea that the function of attention’s selectivity is ‘Selection for Action’, rather than limited-capacity-management, was first elaborated by Odmar Neumann and Alan Allport, in a pair of papers (written somewhat independently of one another), both of which were published (in the same volume) in 1987. The idea has been revived in the philosophical work of Wayne Wu (see Wu 2011, 2014). Wu argues that selecting something as the target of an action is always a way of attending to that thing. He also claims that all instances of attention involve selecting something as being the item to which an action will be directed. This latter claim is plausible only because Wu is willing to define ‘action’ broadly, so that the audience member who remains unmoving in her chair, but who is nonetheless attending to the cello, whilst ignoring the violins, can still be counted as selecting the cello ‘for action’, by dint of her readiness to form deliberate thoughts about it. If we grant this broad conception of ‘action’ then Wu can plausibly claim that selection for action is both necessary and sufficient for attention. Wu also claims that – despite the continuing tendency of psychologists to relate attention to capacity limitations – the empirical methods by which attention has typically been studied already presuppose this conceptualization of the relationship between attention and action, since experimental participants are typically required to act (in Wu’s sense of ‘act’) on the items to which the experimenter wants them to direct their attention (see Wu 2014, Ch. 7).

Because it emphasizes those functions for attentional selectivity that have nothing to do with limited-capacity management, the Selection for Action theory is a natural accompaniment to theories in which the mechanisms that are responsible for attention’s selectivity do not depend upon bottlenecks of processing capacity. One way in which selectivity can be achieved without the use of such bottlenecks is through mechanisms of competition. Several neuroscientific theories suggest that competitive mechanisms are ubiquitous in the brain, and that the outcome of a competition taking place at any one stage of our sensory-motor processing can influence the competition taking place at any other. The result of this is that “Competition, finally, is integrated between components of the sensorimotor network […]. As an object gains dominance in any one system, responses to this same object are supported elsewhere” (Duncan 1998). In the light of this neuroscientific picture, a number of psychologists have suggested that what it is for an item to be attended just is for that item to be the winner of this integrated competition, taking place throughout the sensorimotor cortex (Desimone 1998). This is known as the ‘Biased Competition’ theory of attention (or, sometimes, as the ‘Integrated Competition’ theory).

On one interpretation, the Biased Competition theory does not require any attention-specific processing to be taking place. Instead it requires competitive interactions between whatever other sorts of processing are going on. This would imply that there is no one part of the brain that houses attention-specific processes, and so that attention has no ‘seat in the brain’. The metaphysical consequences of such a view have been elaborated in the cognitive unison theory of attention (Mole 2011). This is a theory according to which there is no one process of attention in the brain, just as there is no one player in the orchestra who is responsible for that orchestra’s unison. Attention is instead understood as being the result of quite different processes working together, with the question of which processes are involved in any particular instances of attention depending on the particular task that the attentive agent is performing. Such a view explains attention by first giving a theory of attentiveness. Its adverb-first explanatory approach has much in common with the mode of processing view that was suggested by Locke (see §1), and with the explanatorily modest approach that was suggested by Bradley (see §2).

The selection for action theory and the cognitive unison theory emphasize the close links between attention and the exercise of agency. Some theorists have thought that attention is essentially involved, not with all agency, but only with those instances of agency in which the agent actively directs her sense organs (see Moore et al. 2003; Armstrong 2011). As in most scientific work on attention, this proposal has been worked out in most detail for the case of attention to visual stimuli, where it amounts to the claim is that the processes responsible for bringing about eye movements play a role in attention, even in those cases of attention in which the eyes are not moved. Cases where attention is given to an item without the eyes being directed towards that item (identified by Posner 1980) are, according to this theory, cases in which eye movements are planned but never executed.

There are empirical debates around the viability of this ‘pre-motor theory of attention’, and there are questions remaining to be explored about how the theory might account for attention to items outside the visual field, but even in its current state the theory is of some philosophical interest. The pre-motor theory of attention is, for example, a natural accompaniment to the sensori-motor accounts of perception, as popularized in the works of Alva Noë (see Noë 2004), Susan Hurley (1998) and others. Incorporating some version of this pre-motor theory may be the most plausible way for such accounts to accommodate the facts about attention.

Citing this article:
Mole, Christopher. Attention and Action. Attention, 2017, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-V042-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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