Thursday, 17 July 2014


Attention by Wayne Wu
I am Wayne Wu, currently Associate Professor in, and Associate Director of, the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition.

Consider some mundane situations: (a) you've lost your keys and look around searching for them; (b) you watch picnickers throw a frisbee when suddenly, it flies towards you and you reach to catch it; (c) you memorize the first 30 digits of pi and then later, recall them; (d) you drink some wine and figure out what flavors it exemplifies; (e) you ponder various reasons for making a significant decision or for justifying a specific claim; (f) while onlookers are oblivious, a child's straying too close to a busy road captures your attention.

These mundane situations reflect instances of bodily and mental agency, of conscious awareness, of directed thought, and of epistemic and practical reflection. They are tied together by the subject's selective attunement to various facets of a situation. That is, they exemplify the deployment of attention (or so I would argue). Attention insinuates itself into many matters of philosophical significance.

In Attention, part of Routledge's New Problems in Philosophy series, I argue for the philosophical importance of attention. My aim is to provide an overview of empirical work on attention, investigate what attention is, and use that understanding to examine different philosophical issues infiltrated by attention.

The first four chapters focus on what attention is. Chapters 1 and 2 provide a selective overview of empirical work on attention in psychology and neuroscience since the 1950s, covering major theories and experimental results. The key idea is that there is an empirical sufficient condition for attention, namely that when a subject selects some X to inform performance of a certain task where X is relevant, the subject attends to X. This condition is built into experimental design in both the psychology and neuroscience of attention. Proceeding from this condition, I connect attention to action in Chapter 3, covering two recent theories where this connection is salient: attention as selection for action and attention as cognitive unison. My own view is that attention is a subject's selecting X to perform an action, but in general, attention has an essential connection to agency. Chapter 4 explores whether attention as a psychological state is essentially conscious, as many seem to hold (e.g. William James). I argue for the negative claim: there is unconscious attention.

The last half of the book focuses on the connection between attention and various further matters of philosophical interest. Chapters 5 and 6 explore the idea that attention serves as a gatekeeper to consciousness, that is, that one is phenomenally conscious of only that to which one attends. The notion of attention here can be perceptual attention or some notion of access. By understanding what attention is, I argue that many striking experiments that purport to support gatekeeping are methodologically flawed, including many of the standard inattentional blindness paradigms. Despite gatekeeping having been actively discussed for several decades in philosophy and cognitive science, central aspects of the debate have been hampered by insufficient analysis of attention.

Chapter 7 focuses on the role of attention in demonstrative thought, including a discussion of attention to objects as a distinct mode of attention. Chapter 8 then concludes with a discussion of an area where I think more work needs to be done: the epistemic role of attention. I focus on attention in justification and attention in introspection. Indeed, there is much work yet to be done on attention.

For too long, philosophers have either ignored attention, focused on the restricted topic of gatekeeping, or invoked attention as if it was transparent, so proceeded without an adequate analysis (e.g. see the phenomenal concepts literature). If I am right, attention is central to many important philosophical topics, and progress on these topics requires that we take attention seriously as a topic in its own right.

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