Researchers revisit attention and consciousness puzzle

cropped photo of a clock face
A clock ticks away in the background while you’re absorbed in a book. When you shift your attention to the clock, does its ticking seem to get louder? Philosophers and psychologists have debated the answer since the late 19th century when William James and Gustav Fechner staked out opposing positions.

Now a philosopher-psychologist duo from York University has entered the debate with their article “Attention and Mental Paint,” published in the September issue of Mind & Language.

photo of Jacob Beck

Jacob Beck

York U Professor and philosopher Jacob Beck and vision scientist Keith Schneider met when they were both affiliated with York’s Centre for Vision Research (Schneider has since moved to the University of Delaware). “We soon realized we were approaching the same question from different angles,” said Beck, “so we decided to team up.”

In recent years, psychologists have developed new techniques to study attention’s influence on appearance and Schneider has been at the forefront of that movement. By using carefully constructed stimuli and manipulating where people attend, he has shown in a controlled laboratory environment that attention does not influence appearance. A ticking clock seems no louder when attended.

Philosophers have also rediscovered the question of attention’s influence on appearance. “Philosophers are interested in the question,” said Beck, “because it speaks to the relation between two of the mind’s most puzzling features: representation and consciousness.”

photo of Keith Schneider

Keith Schneider

In their article, Beck and Schneider develop a new theory of how attention, consciousness and representation interrelate. They contend that attention alters consciousness, but without changing what the mind represents.

“The view we reject says that attention is like paint – mental paint. It changes how things look by changing what is represented,” said Beck. “The view we defend says that primer is a better metaphor for attention. Primer is applied underneath an exterior coat of paint and so only makes an indirect contribution to the finished product. Similarly, attention alters conscious experience only indirectly, without altering what is represented.”

Beck and Schneider posit that attended stimuli are more salient – they are marked as important by the perceptual system – but they aren’t experienced as more intense. Attending to a ticking clock makes it pop out in consciousness, but it doesn’t make it appear any louder.

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