Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Attention and consciousness are not the same thing.

I would like to point you to an excellent article by Christof Koch and Naotsugu Tsuchiya in Trends in Cognitive Science arguing that attention and consciousness are two distinct brain processes. They do a much more thorough job than I managed in my "Biology of Mind" book. A PDF form of the article can be obtained from the Koch laboratory web site. Here is their abstract:

The close relationship between attention and consciousness has led many scholars to conflate these processes. This article summarizes psychophysical evidence, arguing that top-down attention and consciousness are distinct phenomena that need not occur together and that can be manipulated using distinct paradigms. Subjects can become conscious of an isolated object or the gist of a scene despite the near absence of top-down attention; conversely, subjects can attend to perceptually invisible objects. Furthermore, top-down attention and consciousness can have opposing effects. Such dissociations are easier to understand when the different functions of these two processes are considered. Untangling their tight relationship is necessary for the scientific elucidation of consciousness and its material substrate.

At the end of their paper the authors comment on the implications their consclusions hold for real life:

It could be contested that top-down attention without consciousness and consciousness with little or no top-down attention are arcane laboratory curiosities that have little relevance to the real world. We believe otherwise. A lasting insight into human behavior – eloquently articulated by Friedrich Nietzsche – is that much action bypasses conscious perception and introspection. In particular, Goodale and Milner isolated highly trained, automatic, stereotyped and fluid visuomotor behaviors that work in the absence of phenomenal experience. As anybody who runs mountain trails, climbs, plays soccer or drives home on automatic pilot knows, these sensorimotor skills – dubbed zombie behaviors – require rapid and sophisticated sensory processing. Confirming a long-held belief among trainers, athletes perform better at their highly tuned skill when they are distracted by a skill-irrelevant dual task (e.g. paying attention to tones) than when they pay attention to their exhaustively trained behaviors.

The history of any scientific concept (e.g. energy, atoms or genes) is one of increasing differentiation and sophistication until its action can be explained in a quantitative and mechanistic manner at a lower, more elemental level. We are far from this ideal in the inchoate science of consciousness. Yet functional considerations and the empirical and conceptual work of many scholars over the past decade make it clear that these psychologically defined processes – top-down attention and consciousness – so often conflated, are not the same. This empirical and functional distinction clears the deck for a concerted neurobiological attack on the core problem – that of identifying the necessary and sufficient neural causes of a conscious percept.

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