Consciousness—the subjective awareness of various things such as visual objects, events, thoughts, and emotions—is of interest to many scholars including theologists, philosophers, and psychologists. While at one point it would have been thought absurd to study consciousness empirically, recent advancements in cognitive neuroscience and its visualization techniques (e.g., fMRI, EEG) have made it possible to test brain mechanisms that are directly related to conscious awareness. Studies on visual attention have particular relevance to conscious experience, and many scientists have associated some forms of attention with consciousness. It is this area that we find most interesting and thus will be focusing much of our discussion.

We will argue that consciousness has some overlap with visual attention (and this should extend to attention in other modalities), but for the most part, consciousness and attention can be considered to be distinct forms of mental states. We focus on visual attention since it is an area that has been studied extensively in cognitive psychology and has clear implications for conscious experience.

We offer four main arguments that help explain the relationship between consciousness and visual attention:

  1. The first argument is that a vast amount of research shows that many forms of attention, even at the personal level, occur automatically and without conscious awareness.
  2. Second, we argue that most philosophical views on the nature of consciousness entail some levels of dissociation between consciousness and attention.
  3. Third, we claim that there is a distinctive kind of conscious attention that is not reducible to attention or conscious awareness.
  4. And fourth, considerations about evolution strongly suggest that consciousness and attention must be dissociated, which is perhaps the strongest empirical argument to be made.

These arguments, which we will discuss in more detail in subsequent posts, help to provide a systematic account of the relationship between consciousness and attention that can lead to a better understanding of the purpose of conscious awareness. By describing a spectrum of dissociation between consciousness and attention, we can achieve some conceptual clarity to the interdisciplinary debates concerning these topics. We refer to this proposal as the Consciousness and Attention Dissociation (CAD), and it includes theories that range from claiming that they are identical processes to theories that argue for a complete dissociation (see illustration below). Therefore, it is important to outline the requirements for the different levels of dissociation and define the overlap between the two—conscious attention. Below is an illustration of the possible levels of overlap between consciousness and attention.

 MIT Press.
Source: ​ Image adapted from Montemayor & Haladjian (2015). "Consciousness, Attention, and Conscious Attention". Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

In order to understand how visual attention can be related to consciousness, we must present an overview of the research on attention (this is the main topic of our next post) as well as the relevant theories in the philosophical literature (which is the main topic of our third post). To give you a general idea, here are some main points that we need to make.

First, we will need to examine the relevant work on attention, which includes studies on feature-based attention, spatial attention, object-based attention, effortless attention, the mechanisms supporting the different forms of attention (e.g., neural structures and pathways), and the evolution of these mechanisms. This review is important for our primary argument that consciousness and attention must be dissociated at some level, as there are functionally different forms of attention that seem to operate independently and to have evolved at different times from each other—such functional and evolutionary arguments are difficult to make for consciousness.

Then we must focus on the philosophical theories about consciousness and how they might relate to our understanding of visual attention. By examining several theoretical considerations, a robust form of dissociation between consciousness and attention is apparent. This approach helps disambiguate terms that need to be reconciled in order to improve exchanges between theorists, and also systematically unifies debates that have been largely isolated from one another. Our main conclusion is that many of the current debates show that a more comprehensive theory of the relationship between consciousness and attention is needed, and that a dissociation between the two is an essential feature of this theory.

This discussion will lead to an examination of the theoretical possibility of having systematic forms of overlap between consciousness and attention—what has been termed ‘conscious attention.’ This is a possibility that is compatible only with views that dissociate consciousness and attention, but without denying that they can overlap in regular ways. The views that preclude such an overlap are identity theories and full dissociation theories. (For identity theories, by assumption, all forms of consciousness are automatically forms of attention. At the opposite end of the spectrum, for full dissociation theories, there is no possible overlap between consciousness and attention; although they might seem to occur in tandem, such theories must claim that there are no systematic overlaps between them.) There can be several forms of conscious attention, including those related to phenomenal experiences, dreams, self-awareness, autobiographical memories, reflexive thoughts, and effortless attention. What we conclude here is that conscious attention is an important form of attention that requires further study and will ultimately help us better understand the purpose of consciousness.

Taking this discussion a step further, we can argue that the scientific findings about attention and the basic considerations about the evolution of different forms of attention demonstrate that consciousness and attention must be dissociated regardless of which definition of these terms one uses. No extant view on the relationship between consciousness and attention has this advantage. Because of this characteristic, a principled and neutral way to settle disputes concerning this relationship can be presented, without falling into debates about the meaning of consciousness or attention. A decisive conclusion of this approach is that consciousness cannot be identical to attention.

We believe that a better understanding of consciousness in general can be achieved by describing the evolution of conscious attention, as well as the possible functional roles it may serve. Such roles include the facilitation of empathetic interactions, the formation of language capacities, cross-modal sensory integration, and limiting the contents of awareness. From here we can better understand the purpose of consciousness and why it evolved, and perhaps even develop an understanding of these sorts of experiences in animals other than humans. This work should be of interest to psychologists studying attention or consciousness as well as philosophers working on the theoretical side of these topics.

About the Authors

Harry Haroutioun Haladjian Ph.D.

Harry Haroutioun Haladjian, Ph.D., is a research fellow at the School of Social Sciences and Psychology at the University of Western Sydney. 

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