How attention shapes consciousness

There is a subjective way you experience the world. This is way it is like for you to listen to Jazz, to look around curiously, or to taste dark chocolate. It is hard to know about what it is like for you to experience these things simply by observing your behavior. This phenomenal consciousness is what makes the mind-body problem hard.

Today and tomorrow, I will write about attention and phenomenal consciousness. Today’s post is about how attention is reflected in the structure of conscious experience. Tomorrow I will write about what this may tell us about the nature of consciousness.

Attention has often been discussed as related to the easier aspects of consciousness that concern mental functioning and not subjective experience. But attention also affects phenomenal consciousness. What it is like for you when you are listening to a Jazz piece depends on whether your attention is focused on the sound of the saxophone, on that of the trumpet, on the rhythm or on the subtleties of the melody. You will have one kind of conscious experience when you pay attention to the words you are reading, and a different kind of conscious experience when you begin to focus on the scenery outside. And your experience of the chocolate differs depending on whether you concentrate on tasting it or whether you quickly throw it in your mouth while all your attention is on getting some work done. How are we to explain the ways in which differences in attention are reflected in differences in consciousness?

One approach is to look at the way attention affects appearances: how it affects the way the music sounds, the way your environment looks, and the way the chocolate tastes. This approach has led to a rich, widely and controversially discussed, body of experimental evidence. Marisa Carrasco and her lab, for example, have studied how attention affects appearances along a number of dimensions. For example, they have studied the effect of attention on the apparent contrast of a Gabor patch. They find (or claim to find, as some controversy remains) that a 22 percent contrast Gabor patch at the focus of attention looks like a 28 percent contrast patch outside the focus of attention. Attention thus seems to boost apparent contrast by about six percent. This is not the only such effect: similar results are obtained with regard to apparent color saturation, apparent size, apparent speed, and apparent time of occurrence; the attended parts of ambiguous figures tend to look closer, edges get assigned to what is attended to, and attention enhances the spatial resolution of conscious vision, while it degrades its temporal resolution. And sometimes – but not always, as Carrasco’s experiments demonstrate! – you may not be able to see the gorilla at all, if your attention is focused on something else.[1]

But is the way attention shapes consciousness exhausted by those effects on appearances? I don’t believe that it is, and indeed by focusing on those effects, we miss the most important contribution of attention to phenomenal consciousness. I offer two arguments for this conclusion.

First, the effects of attention on appearances are small (look again at this six percent difference), diverse (as I have suggested in the last paragraph), and sometimes surprising: who would, for example, have expected that attention decreases temporal resolution? But there seems to be a kind of unity to what it is like to focus attention on something, and an effect that is easy to detect from the first-person point of view. There is a kind of phenomenal prominence or experiential highlighting that is common between different cases of attention. This creates a phenomenal mismatch between the phenomenal unity and vividness of attention, and the diversity and rather obscure character of its effects on appearances.

Sebastian Watzl, Structuring Mind: The Nature of Attention and How it Shapes Consciousness (OUP, 2017)

Second, the effects of attention on appearances can always be replicated without attention. Instead of making the saxophone sound louder by turning attention to it (supposing that attention has that effect), simply turn up the volume of the saxophone mic! Instead of increasing apparent contrast with attention, just increase the contrast of the actual figure on the screen. And instead of increasing the spatial resolution of a figure through a covert shift of attention, just put that figure at the high-resolution center of your eye (the fovea) even while your attention is elsewhere. Generally, this replicability follows from what I call the worldly character of appearances: appearances concern how the world looks (or sounds) to the subject, and therefore no distinctive aspect of a subject’s mental life, like attention, is ever necessary for whether an experience instantiates such an appearance. From this it follows that it is possible to create an experience that replicates all the effects of attention on appearances, but does so with a different distribution of attention (maybe attention is fully diffused). But, I believe, many such appearance replicas feel different from the experience with the original distribution of attention. What it is like to focus attention on the saxophone isn’t at all what it is like to hear a loud saxophone while attentively listening to something else. There is a kind of internal stance we take with our focus of attention that cannot be outsourced to the world. For this reason, we can easily discriminate an attention episode from its replica from the first-person point of view.

But how else does attention affect phenomenal consciousness? Attention structures consciousness into center and periphery. William James puts this nicely:

… how false a notion of experience that is which would make it tantamount to the mere presence to the senses of an outward order… Without selective interest, experience is utter chaos. Interest alone gives accent and emphasis, light and shade, background and foreground – intelligible perspective, in a word.

Priority structures, as I argue, manifest in consciousness as phenomenal structure. Appearances concern phenomenal qualities that characterize the individual parts of your experience. But there is also a phenomenal manifestation of how those parts are put together: which part is central in experience, and which is in the periphery. The parts of experience are compared and connected by relations of relative peripherality and centrality.

Indeed, this manifestation in consciousness is part of what gives us a grip on the priority relations that I wrote about in my last posts. One way to connect phenomenal structure and priority structure is to think of our acquaintance with the former as what fixes (or at least constrains) reference to the latter: a priority relation is in part that relation, which we know of in consciousness.[2]

Phenomenal structure, in my view, characterizes not only perceptual experience but also conscious thought. Like perception, conscious thought has parts. Different parts may be central in your experience of thinking that thought. Think of the difference between thinking that you will walk to the café (instead of taking your bicycle, as usual), and thinking that you will walk to the café (instead of walking to the bank, which you had originally planned). Conscious thought further, as William James again noted, tends to be accompanied by a “halo or penumbra” of mental images, feelings, and associations that “surround and escort” that thought. What it is like for you to think that thought indeed may be colored by those associations and feelings, and it may remain in a central position only because of this penumbra around it. Conscious thought, like perception, often has the form of theme and thematic field.

Phenomenal structure implies that experience is not, as David Hume thought, “a heap or collection of different perceptions”, which “may be consider’d as separately existent”. Peripherality relations cannot exist separately from what they relate, and what it is like to have an experience that is structured in these ways will not be exhausted by the combination of what it is like to experience all of its parts. The parts of the field of consciousness are enmeshed in attentional nets.

[1] See p. 161 of Structuring Mind for references.n

[2] This is compatible with the view that attention can occur unconsciously, just like a visual experience of the property of being oval might fix reference to that shape, even though there are some ovals we cannot see.


  1. Tom McClelland

    If a centre/periphery structure is a universal feature of the phenomenology of attention, does that mean it’s impossible to have an experience involving truly diffuse attention? This would be an experience in which everything is given equal priority, so nothing is in the attentional periphery. This is probably psychologically impossible, but we could imagine a psychologically enhanced subject for whom this would be possible. When they shift into the diffuse state, does their phenomenology of attention disappear? Is there a way round this? And would it matter if you just bit the bullet here?

  2. Sebastian Watzl

    Tom: a “flat” phenomenological attention space is possible on my view. If you take as the fundamental structuring relation also in the conscious case one that allows for symmetry, like ‘X is as least as central in experience as Y’ (I call this weak centrality), then you get the flat space when everything bears that relation to everything else (or anyway, no asymmetries). I have heard people say that such a fully diffused mode of attention may for example happen in certain kinds of meditation.

    With weak centrality as the starting point an asymmetric relation ‘is more central than’ can then be straightforwardly defined (with ‘is more peripheral than’ as its converse). And a center of experience is a part such that nothing is more central than it.

    I do think that a creature must be able to have non-flat centrality structures. If they are able to have those, then the flat one is just one of many. If they weren’t able to have non-flat ones, then I think the notion of attention doesn’t really get a grip.

  3. J. Scott Wagner

    I find your line of inquiry much, much more practically useful than most forays into consciousness, particularly with this post focusing on aspects of attention. In a recent publication I used a camera/cameraman metaphor for a lay audience to get at an idea effectively scaffolded by your thoughts. If attention is the central pillar of consciousness, it is integral to meaning-making, habit execution, alterations of behavior patterns, and the much-vaunted role of self-observation. You seem to be respectfully silent about the normative aspects here, but I went right to the construction of attentional strategies. One may certainly stand behind that with psychological and biological causation, whatever scaffolding one wants to speculate on, but the bottleneck, if you will, on the conscious (aware) side is the quite finite bitstream (qualia and representations, say) that float through.

    At the risk of being overly practical :0) ; teaching about bias and self-creation using the notion that one points one’s camera to define one’s reality helps to make more intuitive: that we can only perceive tiny slices of what’s going on (let’s instantiate some humility up in here); that the ‘cameraman’, or the stand-in for the I that we all elaborately synthesize, is taking perspectival orders from a mysterious producer (biological/psychological origins of enacted agency aren’t deterministic, but are effectively quite so); that viewing the camera input as all of reality (actually, as all of reality that matters) unduly strengthens the illusion of an independent (non-physicalist), well-informed I; that biases and some heuristics are about the producer ordering the cameraman to limit perspectives based on what the show wants.

    Something like that. More prosaically, Adam Grant preaches that limiting perspective is a more effective tool than whatever willpower is- he characterizes it as controlling circumstance, but it’s a perspective argument (make the candy invisible). Based on my own field work, and bolstered by this stuff, I’d broaden that to say that willpower is an attempt to be a great producer, while recognizing the primacy of perspective in consciousness is using the clues one sees in what perspectives one chooses to observe what the cameraman does better, thereby allowing whatever action one does to improve circumstances or action patterns to be better informed by other options reality provides for perception.

    Very nice work!

  4. J. Scott Wagner

    > the effects of attention on appearances can always be replicated without attention.
    > What it is like to focus attention on the saxophone isn’t at all what it is like to hear a loud saxophone while attentively listening to something else.

    You’re positing a replication (some form of representation or equivalence, presumably) between experience of 1) perspective with attention to music at low volume and 2) perspective with less attention toward music at higher volume. This strong ‘can always be replicated’ idea- I don’t get either the meaning or purpose of the precision and mandate of the posit; the apples and oranges of it get in the way, but you don’t need strong equivalence, anyway.

    I find the appearance replica notion super interesting and helpful, as a manipulation we tend to do a lot, purposely or not, for various reasons. I can only think of it as a similarity or copycatting idea, with proportional or alternate forms of attracting perspective being highlighted and/or muddled, with a statistical component to it a la Milliken’s locally recurrent natural signs (that’s why I’m reacting the way I am to the equivalence argument). It seems tied in with ad creation, mood setting, and other forms of attempting to guide perspective.

  5. Sebastian Watzl

    Scott: thanks for the kind words. I did hope that the approach I am taking helps to get us a better grip on some of the normative questions you are interested in (and others). Indeed, this is now the area I am moving towards. There is a brief section in the book on attention and self-control, and I have a draft of a paper that is directly about that. I am also working more generally on different ways of evaluating priority structures and the activities, which are constituted by them, the moral, prudential and epistemic pressures on them. If you’re interested, let’s be in touch by email.

    As for the appearance replicas: I was thinking of it in this context mostly as a thought experiment (though we can approximate such replicas in reality)

  6. This is a great subtopic for philosophy of mind, especially as regards the role of attention in consciousness selection. It leaves me wondering the status of cognition that has not been attentionally selected for cerebral celebrity.

    It’s also always struck me that intention plays a role in volitional action similar to that played by attention in perception. This follows from my customary guiding principle of bringing passive and active together into a unified framework.

    Per shadowing experiments, attention appears to be necessary for auditory experience to form a (persistent) memory. So what is the role of intention in action? Legally, it makes one responsible in a way that doesn’t apply to unintentional action. In eastern philosophy, intention is an important factor in karmic consequences of action.

    I’m often left wondering whether memory and karma are two forms of the same thing — one passive, one active — both representing a conscious event that has receded, persistently, into the past.

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