Forms of Conscious Attention

Conscious attention is perhaps the most familiar form of attention.

Posted Sep 10, 2015

Lloyd is a dear friend who, among other things, is an eloquent writer. The process of learning how to write and then becoming proficient enough to write widely read novels is no easy task. Lloyd had to first acquire a language and the associated rules that enable the communication of thought, as well as the mechanics for the tools used to write (be it a pen or a keyboard). Only then could he begin to creatively compose written stories. But now, long after the initial investment of learning these skills, he often writes long passages effortlessly and can get pleasantly lost in his work.

Markus Werner for Crack Magazine
Source: Markus Werner for Crack Magazine

The same is true for playing the piano (or any other musical instrument) — there is a large amount of effort initially put into learning how to use the keys, reading musical notes, and playing complete pieces, before one can go on to play effortlessly and possibly compose original music. My multi-talented friend Lloyd can do this too. In both examples, the amount of conscious effort that Lloyd puts into the mechanics of these tasks changed over time, and now after years of practice they can create an effortless feeling of “flow” when he is fully engaged in those activities.

This feeling of flow is particularly interesting for our understanding of consciousness. People often report feeling flow under various circumstances — when engrossed in engaging work tasks, when playing or dancing to music, when going for a run or doing yoga or some other taxing physical activity. Some even argue that this experience is an important aspect of the human condition that contributes to happiness (see this TED talk by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi for a good review of flow, its history, and how it is related to overall happiness.)

In Lloyd's case, whether he's working on his latest novel or taking a break and playing a favorite piece on the piano, he sometimes experiences flow where the acts of playing or writing feel as if they are happening outside of his sense of self. A sense of time also can be lost, and Lloyd may find that many hours have passed without realizing that he has missed his lunch date. During these tasks, he uses his expert skill while being engaged in the challenge of creating something new, which means his attention and conscious awareness are engrossed in these particular tasks in a way that allows him to experience flow.

We described the various forms of attention in our previous posts (in particular, see the blog post from July 1, 2015, and Haladjian & Montemayor, 2015.) An important conclusion from the research is that many forms of attention can happen outside of our awareness, and possibly even some forms of consciousness can occur without attentive processing, perhaps including flow experiences where one cannot attend to voluntary intentions (e.g., for executing actions.) In terms of the implications for the relationship between consciousness and attention, we generally believe that the two must be largely dissociated mechanisms (see Montemayor & Haladjian, 2015.) Nevertheless, there is some overlap between the two, and conscious attention is this overlap.

Conscious attention is the “reportable” form of attention that is part of conscious awareness. That is, the contents of attention are consciously accessible such that one could report detecting this information. Of the many forms of attention that have been investigated, conscious attention is perhaps the most familiar. When we are attending to a particular object or thought or event that we are experiencing, and we can report that we are attending to it, we are exhibiting our use of conscious attention.

There are several forms of conscious attention that vary in complexity. In addition to the forms of conscious attention that Lloyd has when engaged in his work (i.e., the effortless attention that requires high levels of attentional processing but occurs with little perceived effort,) conscious attention can also include the simpler ability to report information from basic selective attention, such as feature-based or spatial attention. Voluntary attention is another example of conscious attention, as it requires a deliberate deployment of focused attention on a specific feature, object, or task. Cross-modal attention describes a more complex form of attention where mappings between different modalities must occur to bring about conscious experience (in some memory-based “global workspace” with a common format,) and this form of attention can also result in conscious attention. There is also attention to conceptual content related to richer experiences, which requires more complex interactions with memory systems. An example of conceptual content would be the ability to recognize an opera as Beethoven's “Fidelio” as opposed to it simply being a musical piece. Conscious attention can also take on the form of visualization, since this requires voluntary attention to conceptual content retrieved from memory.

So while attentional systems evolved early in organisms in order to allow them to interact with their complex environments, conscious attention likely emerged more recently in this evolution (we describe this idea in Haladjian & Montemayor, 2015, and we will talk more about the evolution of conscious attention in a subsequent post.) It provides us with the conscious experience that allows us to feel like we are interacting with our environment and helps us remain engaged with the task at hand. The significance of conscious attention also relates to various philosophical theories on consciousness, as it may provide some functional explanations for consciousness and therefore it helps us better understand the purpose of conscious experience as well as how it is implemented by the brain.

Conscious attention may also be the mechanism that allowed humans to develop empathy based on emotions. It gives emotional states greater emphasis and, along with the argument that flow experiences related to conscious attention are important for overall happiness, seems to provide the fundamental richness of the human experience. If this argument holds up under further scrutiny, it has implications in the development of artificial intelligence since emotions are not something that can be truly experienced by computers — they may be simulated by computers but never actually felt. In this way, it is possible that conscious attention is the missing piece for A.I., and one of the most challenging pieces to address.

- Harry Haladjian & Carlos Montemayor


Haladjian, H. H., & Montemayor, C. (2015). On the evolution of conscious attention. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 22(3), 595-613. doi: 10.3758/s13423-014-0718-y

Montemayor, C., & Haladjian, H. H. (2015). Consciousness, Attention, and Conscious Attention. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.