DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-V042-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2017
Retrieved March 23, 2019, 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 being equivalent to ‘the question of the span of consciousness’. 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 one to have any conscious experiences of it (James’s actual view cannot have been that all conscious experience was attention-requiring, since he also provided a description of consciousness in the absence of attention).

The psychologists who have followed James in taking the attention/consciousness relation to be an intimate one often regard this as enabling their theories of attention to be used in casting light on the psychological 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).

This tradition of treating the relationship between attention and consciousness as an intimate one, and so of taking the study of attention as providing a route by which to investigate the psychological and neurological basis of consciousness, has recently been put on a new empirical footing. There are, however, some controversies about how the relevant experiments should best be interpreted (see Schwitzgebel 2007; Mole 2008). In one series of experiments, people show surprisingly little knowledge of things to which they have not been paying attention. (Mack and Rock 1998). This is so, even when those things are conspicuously presented. A memorable example of this is the finding that many observers fail to notice a person who is dressed in a gorilla suit, if this person appears whilst the observers are performing a task that requires them to focus on some people who are dressed in white, whilst ignoring other surrounding people who – like the gorilla – are dressed in black (Simons and Chabris 1999).

Some psychologists and philosophers (e.g. Prinz 2007) take these experiments as showing that attention is necessary for consciousness, and so take them as vindicating the tactic of using attention-research to illuminate the psychological basis consciousness. Others note that these same experiments have also found that certain stimuli do not get overlooked, even when attention is directed elsewhere. They take this to suggest that, at least for these particular stimuli, attention is not necessary for consciousness. One of the stimuli that does not get overlooked is one’s own name. This is almost always recognized, even when one’s attention is directed elsewhere (Mack and Rock, 1998: Ch. 5). People also prove to be surprisingly good at detecting the presence of animals in photographs of natural scenes, even when these are presented very briefly, and at a time when one is performing some other attention-demanding task (Li et al. 2002). This might be because animals and utterances of one’s own name are always salient, and always attract the attention. It might alternatively be that these are things which come into conscious experience, even when no attention is given to them. There is a controversy as to which of these interpretations is correct (Jennings, 2015). There is also disagreement as to what sorts of experimental methods might allow this question to be settled (Cohen et al., 2012).

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. There might, that is, be cases of attention in the absence of consciousness. Experiments with blindsight patients have suggested that visual attention might remain intact, even when brain injury results in a loss of conscious vision for the relevant part of space (Kentridge, Nijboer and Heywood, 2008). There are also experiments that have been thought show that attention can exist without consciousness, even in normal people. In one of these experiments a rapid flickering is used to make the shapes presented on a screen invisible. Visual cues that attract the attention to one part of this flickering screen nonetheless seem to result in attention being paid to the area that is defined by the boundary of the stimuli that are invisibly present (Norman, Heywood and Kentridge, 2013). This has been taken to indicate that consciousness of a stimulus is not necessary for attention to that stimulus. If that is the case then a theory of attention that applied only to conscious attention would be, at best, a partial theory (see Koch and Tsuchiya 2007).

Citing this article:
Mole, Christopher. Attention and consciousness. Attention, 2017, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-V042-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

Related Articles