I noted in the post on Susan Blackmore’s views that often consciousness get associated with the results of one of three processes: perception, attention, or introspection. Interestingly, while everyone and their brother has a book out on consciousness, attention receives far less… attention.
At least in the popular press. The science of attention has a more respectable reputation in neuroscience than the one for consciousness. In the neuroscience textbooks I have, attention often warrants its own chapter, whereas consciousness itself is usually lucky to get a side note.
Attention seems to play a crucial role in global workspace type theories, which largely take consciousness to be the result of attention, as well as add-ons such as Michael Graziano’s attention schema theory, which involves voluntary control of attention. Since I think these theories hold some promise, I occasionally take dives into the material on attention. This week I came across Christopher Mole’s SEP article on attention, which seems to provide a good overview.
It’s interesting that the subject of attention is as old as consciousness, with Rene Descartes, Bishop Berkeley, and John Locke all having views on it. But things start to get more grounded with William James in the late 1800s, who claims that, “Volition is nothing but attention”. As usual, James may have been ahead of everyone else.
But cognitive scientists in the twentieth century became preoccupied with the idea that attention is about capacity limitations, and that appears to have dominated the conversation for decades. It resulted in a long running debate about where in the processing this bottleneck existed. Was it in early sensory processing, indicating that actual identification of perceived objects didn’t happen unless they were being attended? Or in later post perceptual processing, indicating that we might identify those objects even if not attending to them?
I’m not sure Mole explicitly notes this, but what neuroscientists actually discovered is that selective attention takes place in both early and late processing. It’s a multistep process that begins as early as the thalamus but continues throughout from early sensory regions all the way to motor ones. So it’s possible for content to be included in selection early on, but be subsequently selected out later.
However the brain is a massively parallel processing system, so thinking that it’s being selective for capacity reasons seems strange. Mole covers the gradual realization that this notion arises from treating attention as only a perceptual phenomenon. When we include the action oriented portions of the mind, then a more functional and evolutionary role comes into view.
An animal can physically only do one or two things at once, which means that the brain has to have mechanisms to decide which aspects of the information coming in from the senses warrants responding to. This leads to the phrase “selection for action”, although “action” in this context might include deliberation, that is, planning for action. William James’ claim that volition and attention are one and the same starts to look prescient.
It also fits with predictive coding views, that perception is an act of prediction fine tuned by the error correction signals coming in from the senses. These predictions are heavily affected by what’s currently being attended to, by the task at hand. And it fits with feedback signaling from the motor systems propagating all the way back into sensory regions.
A question often debated is whether attention is necessary for consciousness, or whether it is sufficient for it. In other words, must we attend to something to be conscious of it? And is attending to it sufficient for us to be conscious of it?
I find the necessity debate interesting, because it seems like evidence for how much most people’s thinking remains dominated by the idea of a theater of the mind, that consciousness is like a movie playing in the brain. Asking whether unattended content is conscious content is essentially asking whether it makes it into this movie. Most scientists and many philosophers explicitly disavow the theater mindset, and yet its lingering hold on us keeps coming up in these types of discussions.
And investigations into this seem deeply problematic. We run into the refrigerator-light illusion, where it’s easy to think the light is always on, because it is every time we look. Testing whether we’re conscious of something inevitably involves calling our attention to it. As William James noted, we can’t turn up the light to get a better look at the dark.
What we can say is that being able to report on something usually requires attending to it in some fashion. And while we seem able to lay down an individual semantic memory (a memory of an individual fact) without attending to it, laying down episodic memories seems to require at least some level of attention to those episodes.
But the brain is a messy place, and it wouldn’t shock me to discover that in some cases it is possible for an unattended memory to make it into longer term memory, but if so it seems very uncommon. And when thinking about this, it’s worth remembering all the processing levels where selective attention happens, and that being attended to vs not being attended isn’t strictly a binary thing.
The other question, whether attention is sufficient for consciousness seems easier to answer. Mole cites the work of scientists who manage to disassociate attention from conscious awareness. Which fits with the fact that we seem able to do things like drive to work, mow the grass, or do the laundry without our mind being on a task that, at some level, we’re attending to.
Mole doesn’t go into it, but it seems clear that we can have attention at a reflexive level, a habitual level, and at a deliberative or planning level. The first two definitely seem possible without much if any conscious awareness. Of course, it could be claimed that we are conscious of these things in the moment, but simply don’t remember it. The refrigerator-light dilemma looms again. On the other hand, deliberative attention, seems much harder to imagine without some level of conscious awareness.
What do you think? Is it possible to be conscious of something without attending to it? If so, can you think of any examples? What does it mean to be conscious of something without being able to report on it or remember it? Is there anyway to get around the refrigerator-light dilemma?