Attention, Attention, Attention

From Zen stories to illusionism.

Posted Mar 13, 2020

Susan Blackmore
Susan Blackmore "just sitting"
Source: Susan Blackmore

In a famous Zen story, a layman asks the great Zen master Ikkyu for some words of wisdom. Ikkyu writes ‘Attention’. Asked for more he writes ‘Attention, Attention’, and finally, in exasperation ‘Attention, Attention, Attention’.

Why? Because Zen training means training attention (Austin 1999), and paying attention is the critical skill involved in all forms of meditation. In Zen, the practice of ‘zazen’ means ‘just sitting’. This sounds easy but as anyone who meditates will know, is not. The skill of sitting quietly without doing anything else, paying attention to whatever arises without clinging or judgement, may take decades of regular practice. Why bother? Because paying attention is the way to insight – to seeing clearly the nature of existence and seeing through the illusions of self, world and duality that give rise to suffering. 

How do these ancient ideas about attention relate to the neuroscience and psychology of consciousness? Should we welcome them and try to learn from them or laugh them off as irrelevant?

In the field of consciousness studies, attention has long been a controversial and confusing topic. Some researchers equate the two, while others claim you can have consciousness without attention and others that attention is necessary but not sufficient for consciousness. Most popular theories of consciousness say rather little specifically about attention, including Global Workspace Theory, Higher Order Thought theories, and Integrated Information Theory. But a new theory brings attention centre stage.  This is Graziano’s (2019) ‘Attention Schema Theory’ (AST). I have many criticisms of AST  - discussed on my Facebook page and in a commentary (Blackmore 2020a) and book review (Blackmore 2020b) - but I still think it makes a big step forward in our thinking about attention.

If you’ve been reading my posts on out-of-body experiences (OBEs), you will know how important the body schema turned out to be. This is a continuously updated model of our body that the brain needs to control our position and movements, and is largely processed in the region of the temporoparietal junction. Stimulating the TPJ can cause OBEs, and these experiences can now be understood as dramatic changes to the body schema. 

According to AST, we need an ‘attention schema’, as well as a body schema. This is needed to control attention and is a cartoonish model of complex processes going on in the global workspace. Of necessity it simplifies them and depicts them as an insubstantial inner essence that grasps objects, sounds, and memories, making them clear and vividly present. In this way, the model is a ‘ghost in the head’, writes Graziano. It seems, but only seems, to be a powerful and ethereal mental essence.

The critical point for understanding consciousness is that we confuse this ghostly essence with an actual inner being – a conscious ‘me’. “Attention is something the brain does; consciousness is something the brain says it has.” He says (2019 p110). So when we say we have consciousness, we are wrong. This means that AST is a version of illusionism. There are many other versions of illusionism in consciousness studies, my own among them (Blackmore 2016). All, like Graziano’s, claim that we radically misunderstand the nature of our own minds. Graziano does not deny this but he will not use the term ‘illusion’ or call his theory illusionist. I think this is a shame because AST so clearly is illusionist and, more importantly, it provides a good reason why we keep falling for the illusion.

Back to Zen – are the illusions created by having an attention schema the same illusions that Zen practitioners, mystics and meditators have been talking about for thousands of years? At the heart of the illusions we face in meditation is that of the illusory inner self – this apparent self who has consciousness and free will, who is in control of the body, and who directs attention. With deep observation we discover that this self is not what it appears to be, and so I believe AST may be pointing to the same illusions we discover by sitting quietly and observing our own minds at play.

There is now a growing number of philosophers, psychologists and neuroscientists who are also long-term meditators. These are people whose attention has long been trained to focus exquisitely narrowly, to open broadly to encompass everything, to follow trains of thought without wavering, or to drop into silence. Such people should be able to help us by bringing theory and practice together.


Austin, J. (1999). Zen and the brain. MIT Press.

Blackmore, S. 2016 Delusions of consciousness. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 23, 52-64 PDF

Blackmore, S. 2020a But AST really is illusionism: Commentary on Graziano et al, Cognitive Neuropsychology, 37, 1-3.

Blackmore, S. 2020b. Review of Rethinking Consciousness by Michael Graziano, Journal of Consciousness Studies,  27 (1-2), 242-56

Graziano, M. (2019) Rethinking Consciousness, Norton