Monday, April 21, 2008

More About Attention and Consciousness

A new paper by Christopher Mole, called simply “Attention and Consciousness”, is another careful analysis which attempts to deflate overly ambitious conclusions made by other authors when interpreting results in experimental psychology. (The online version is a draft that conforms closely to the version published in the latest Journal of Consciousness Studies).

Some researchers have used experimental evidence to argue that attention is necessary for consciousness (inattentional blindness studies). Others argue from different results (blindsight research) for the conclusion that consciousness is not necessary for attention. In opposition to both these views, Mole outlines the common sense account of the relation between attention and consciousness, which holds that attention requires consciousness (not the other way around), and one is conscious of more than that to which one attends. He argues that this common sense view is not threatened by the experimental evidence.

What makes this tricky is that it certainly is true that some instances and forms of consciousness do require attention. But nonetheless it is wrong to think this fact leads to a conclusion that attention is generally required for consciousness, is coextensive with it, or could exist without it.

One part of Mole’s paper discussing such a form of consciousness which appears to require attention I found interesting in light of the previous discussion in the post about Jason Ford’s paper. When speaking of the performance of subjects in an inattentional blindness study, Mole proposes that attention is required for the subject to deploy conceptual analysis of the experience in order to respond correctly to an experimenter’s question. This suggestion would support the contention that structured conceptual judgments about one’s experience (the kind which may introduce fallibility) are a derived outgrowth of a more extensive “raw” experience. (Note Mole doesn’t discuss this fallibility issue himself in this paper).

There is a good deal of interesting discussion in the paper. I’m sympathetic to Mole’s deflationary interpretations of some of these studies.


Mike Wiest said...

Hi Steve

Here's a link

to the abstract of a recent paper in which the authors experimentally dissociate visual awareness from spatial attention. I'm not sure if there's a real discrepancy with Mole's view or not...

Steve said...

Thanks Mike. I'll look at that. - Steve