I’m going to push this topic ahead of discussing the visual streams since it is connected to the very active discussion that we had on automaticity and control in the second post. Apologies to those who want to discuss visual processing in primary cortex and its connection to visual consciousness. We’ll start with attention, and while I focus here on the “what is” question, I’m happy to discuss all aspects of attention including attention and consciousness (if need be, we can add a post on that).
Update: I should add that answering the “What is” question seems to me crucial to making clear headway on some other questions people are familiar with, such as whether attention is a gatekeeper for consciousness (all the debates about inattentional blindness, phenomenal overflow, etc.). So much seems to depend on being clear on what attention is, whether it is the sort of thing that there can be more or less of (cf. Christof Koch and co-workers who often speak of consciousness in the near absence of attention). How resolvable are these debates when the notion of attention is not well-defined?
It is worth noting what I am finding to be a growing skepticism about attention (albeit among the scientists I have interacted with). I had the opportunity to organize a discussion group made up of faculty, postdocs and students at the CNBC to discuss the nature of attention. This group includes many people who have done important work on attention both in psychology and in neuroscience including Aaron Batista, Marlene Behrman, Marlene Cohen, and Carol Colby (I’m not claiming that these folks specifically are skeptical of attention, and they have refreshing views on the subject matter). I tried to see if we could get anywhere in respect of defining what attention is, but I think the general consensus among the scientists was that this project wasn’t going to be successful. I have since met others who have similar doubts, and indeed that there is no such thing as attention! How in the world can that possibly be?
In short, my answer is that attention is selection for action.
This idea was first articulated by Alan Allport and Odmar Neumann in papers in the 1980s, and their work deserves to be read more carefully (I think it is unfortunately neglected). If I have made any contributions here, it was to bring their ideas more in contact with philosophical questions about the nature of agency.
Having now written a book on attention, or at least submitted a complete draft, I wish I had approached the question, “What is attention?”, a bit differently with my empirical colleagues. As I have given detailed arguments elsewhere for the selection for action view, let me just highlight how I would now approach the issue with a skeptical scientist.
Begin with the idea that there are some pretty clear phenomena that got us thinking about attention in the first place in vision (substitute your favorite modalities as you wish): that we can direct people’s gaze, that we search for things, that our attention can be pulled to something (“captured”). This provides our intuitive starting point, an area where we have the most agreement. Let us then consider some experimental paradigms that tap into these intuitively attention involving tasks: visual search paradigms, where you are asked to find a target among lots of distractors; spatial cueing paradigms, where a cue directs your gaze or captures it; object tracking paradigms, where you are asked to follow a subset of indicated targets. There are others of course, but I think each of the ones I have mentioned capture something of our intuitive starting point regarding attention.
The central point then is this: for each of these attention paradigms, there is a fundamental assumption, namely that the task defines some relevant targets, and that where the subject selects those targets to perform the task, the subject is attending to the target. This is to say that there is a sufficient condition for attention that is built into these paradigms, paradigms that echo our intuitive starting point. So what I would say to my empirical colleagues, if I could travel back in time, is that to the extent that they have investigated attention experimentally, they have used paradigms that implicitly endorse this sufficient condition:
If S selects X for task T, then S attends to X.
It is not hard to convert “task” to “action”, and then we have one part of the selection for action definition of attention:
S’s attending to X is S’s selecting X for action
Notice that this account allows for unconscious attention, something that people find paradoxical. I once had a paper rejected from a journal and one of the central objections in the otherwise terse referee report was that of course, attention is conscious! That’s another matter in itself that we can discuss in comments.
I think the sufficient condition is highly plausible, but it is the necessary condition that gives people pause:
If S attends to X, then S selects X for action
It seems clear to many that there are obvious counterexamples to this claim. A natural counterexample is attentional capture, and here, you might think that the drawing in of attention is automatic. Given how I have defined automatic in contrast to control in my second post, namely via the absence of intention, it seems that attentional capture (the grabbing of attention) doesn’t involve selection for action. So, a loud bang that grabs my attention is not selected for action.
It is important to emphasize that “action” here is very broad. It includes not only bodily action but mental action as well. Moreover, actions of the relevant sort need not be intentional actions, but also simple behaviors. Given the latter point, I think that the case of attentional capture is not an obvious counterexample, for there are typical responses to attentional capture, namely orienting. There is good reason for this, at least from pop teleology, namely that a sudden stimulus is of likely behavioral significance and that a good thing to do in the face of it is to investigate further. So, loud sounds typically induce an orienting response: What was that? Where was that?
I’m sure others will have more to say about this worry and will undoubtedly have other worries as well. But let’s leave it at that for now.
Psychologists have long tied attention to some selective process, but the challenge is to say what sort of selection. After all, lots of natural processes can be described as selective, but not all of them instantiate attention. Some, like Jesse Prinz, emphasize selection for working memory. To my mind, this seems unduly restrictive since it seems to me clear that there can be attention that serves action but does not require working memory, say your tracking a single object. Of course, working memory is very close to action since it is memory for work.
Neuroscientists speak of different effects of attention on neural activity including the change of gain (signal amplification), receptive field remapping (a type of filtering), biasing of competition for neuronal resources (a type of modulation of activity) and so on. Yet the neural effects of attention are fairly diverse, and it is arguable that none of them are uniquely implicated in attention. What is true is that to investigate each of these phenomena, neuroscientists must use task-based attention paradigms where by defining a task and target, they can carefully control their subjects’ behavior and, where the subject correctly performs the task, they can infer that their subjects are attending as they should. The task-based approach to attention is to me prior to any neural-based approach.
The functionalist account of attention I endorse, that of Allport and Neumann, seems to me to provide a nice framework for approaching empirical questions about how attention is implemented in the brain, and selection for action is, undoubtedly, multiply realized by the neural effects I just noted. But if this is right, then there is a clear answer to what attention is, one that we can see resonating with empirical and intuitive conceptions of attention.
Suggestions for some reading: Allport’s discussion is found in his “Selection for Action: Some Behavioral and Neurophysiological Considerations of Attention and Action” while Neumann’s is found in his “Beyond Capcity: A Functional View of Attention”. These are both to be found in this volume. I should note that in conversation, Allport does not hold the identity claim. I discuss this point and defend selection for action in my “Attention is Selection for Action” in this volume, which has many other nice papers on attention. Jesse Prinz’s account can be found in his recent book The Conscious Brain, and if you are interested, I have reviewed the book here. Christopher Mole has perhaps the most worked out philosophical theory of attention, an adverbial account: Attention is Cognitive Unison. Chris and I agree in our task-centered orientation (Chris’s book, I just noticed, is on STEEP discount at the link given…you should take advantage and pick up a copy). John Campbell deserves special recognition in pushing attention beyond questions about whether attention is a gatekeeper for consciousness in his important book, Reference and Consciousness. There are many others worth noting but too numerous to do that here. I will the work of a growing number of philosophers on attention in my forthcoming volume on attention called (obviously!): Attention.