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My Research

Attention and Awareness in Visual Experience

We are normally aware of being situated within a predominantly stable physical environment. We see objects around us relative to which we can locate ourselves, whether it is the objects in our immediate vicinity, or a landmark on the horizon. We come to know what those objects look like (such as their shape, size and colour) by attending to them, and becoming aware of their properties. For the most part, if we are attending to what we are seeing (and not, for example, ‘lost in thought’ about something else), what we attend to occupies the centre of our visual field. If something peripheral attracts our attention, we typically move our eyes and bodies to re-orient ourselves appropriately, though with some effort we are able to sustain attention to peripheral items. This brief sketch captures some of what is apparent when we reflect on our visual experience.

This pre-theoretical, or naïve, picture of visual experience seems to be at odds with two claims derived from psychological experiments on visual attention. The first of these claims, that attention is necessary for awareness, is based on the performance of experimental subjects engaged in a visual task.1 A substantial proportion of subjects failed to notice an unexpected task-irrelevant stimulus displayed in full view, something which, when they were not engaged in the visual task, they did notice. (Many of the subjects were surprised by this failure on their part.)2 So if attention is necessary for awareness, when we are attending to something, the implication is that we are not aware of anything else. Instead of attention merely highlighting, as it were, part of our visual field, attention circumscribes its limits. The picture suggested is quite different from the naïve one: instead of visual experience situating us in our environment, with awareness extending beyond the item we might happen to be attending to, this picture is one where the spotlight of attention typically illuminates only a little of what is visible.

In our everyday way of talking, when an object attracts our attention, or someone draws our attention to an object, part of what is meant is that we notice - which is to say, we become aware of - the thing to which we begin attending. Attention, according to our everyday conception of it, is sufficient for awareness. The second claim challenges this conception, asserting instead that attention is possible in the absence of awareness.3 A striking example is the performance of a subject with the neurological impairment blindsight. Individuals with the condition lack awareness – have no experience of seeing anything – in some or all of their visual field. Despite this, they are able to detect and discriminate stimuli in their blind area, when required to guess. A blindsighted subject was able to detect whether or not a target was presented to his blind area more quickly when it was preceded by a valid cue (i.e. a cue indicating the correct location) than when the cue was misleading. The claim is that this kind of visual selection without awareness qualifies as attention.

My thesis is an investigation into the relationship between attention and awareness in visual experience. In particular, it is an inquiry into whether there is an interpretation of the evidence outlined that does not require us to relinquish our pre-theoretical picture of visual experience. Roughly put, the questions around which the thesis is structured are:

(i) For us to be visually aware of something, do we also need to be visually attending to it? Is visual attention in this way necessary for visual awareness? Reflection suggests it is not, experimental data is taken to imply that it is.
(ii) When we visually attend to something, are we also visually aware of it? Is visual attention in this way sufficient for visual awareness? Our everyday conception of attention indicates it is, while experimental data is taken to imply it is not.


1. E.g. Arien Mack and Irvin Rock (1998) Inattentional Blindness; Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris (1999) Gorillas in our midst: sustained inattentional blindness for dynamic events, Perception Vol. 28, pp. 1059-1074.
2. Simons and Chabris (1999).
3. Robert Kentridge, Charles Heywood and Lawrence Weiskrantz (1999) Attention without awareness in blindsight, Proceedings of the Royal Society B Vol. 266, pp. 1805-1811.


Johannes Roessler

j dot roessler at warwick dot ac dot uk

Some related links:

Daniel Simons (inattentional blindness)

Robert Kentridge (attention in blindsight)