Monday, May 07, 2007

Attention, Objects, and Aims

We normally think of attention as a relationship between a person and an object. If you are attending, you're attending to something, that is, to some thing -- a noise, a conversation, an apple.

First problem case: Macbeth hallucinates a dagger. I see a mirage. There is, of course, no dagger and no pool of water. So what thing, what object, do I stand in relation to, as the target of my attention? Some non-existent thing? Some mental thing (an idea, an experience)? If the latter, does it follow that I can't always tell whether my attention is directed outward to the world or inward, as it were, to my own mind? That would be strange.

Not a fatal objection, surely, to an "objectual model" (let's call it) of attention. Defenders of that view will have their resources. But why not, instead, jettison the objectual model and regard attention as the dedication of a certain kind of resource (what we might call "central cognitive resources") to a particular aim or goal? The aim of visual attention is the same in both the mirage case and the case of seeing an ordinary pool of water. The aim is to (for example) determine whether there's water over there, or whether this is really a mirage, or to estimate how long before the car hits the puddle. The mirage case and the visual case can be treated in the same way, without the aid of some ghostly, invented object for me to stand in an attentional relation to.

Consider also other sorts of attention-consuming tasks. Research psychologists have fixated on visual attention (and to some extent auditory attention) almost exclusively in recent decades, but in the early days of introspective psychology people spoke also of "intellectual attention". When you're thinking hard about a math puzzle or when you're contemplating the best route to grandma's house in rush hour, there's a perfectly legitimate sense in which you are devoting (non-sensory) attention to these tasks. Both kinds of tasks consume central cognitive resources. You can't do either very well while also quickly adding a column of numbers or while focusing on a difficult visual task.

But what are the objects I stand in relation to in intellectual attention? The route to grandma's house? Numbers? (What are numbers, anyway?) What if I'm thinking about unicorns? Better to say that I'm trying to do things. Attention is devoted to tasks, not objects. Or consider heavy exercise, holding one's eyes still, and other acts of self control. These tasks, too, consume attentional resources; yet it's not always clear that I am attending to objects (my own body, maybe?) in doing them.

So why do I care about this? Mainly because I think introspection is a species of attention, and that philosophers and psychologists often get introspection wrong because they work with too objectual a model of attention. But more on that in a future post....

(Thanks to Justin Fisher, by the way, for conversation on this point last Friday.)


Tanasije Gjorgoski said...

Hi Eric,

What about simple cases, where e.g. someone says "put your attention on the apple"? It seems to me that in that sense it is very similar to "look at that apple".

Pete Mandik said...

I think of attention as analogous to turning up the gain on various channels on a mixing board in a music studio. The engineer may say "turn up the gain on channel 7" or they may just as well say "turn up the gain on the lead guitar" and effect the same change either way: the slider gets bumped up on channel 7.

Whether attention is objectual or not is going to totally piggyback on whether the chanel in question is objectual or not. Is there a thing you are attending to when you turn up the gain on the unicorn channel? That question will receive exactly the same answer as the answer to the question "is there a thing you are related to by having a unicorn channel?"

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, Tanasije and Pete! I guess I'm not inclined to agree, though.

Tanasije, I agree that our ordinary way of speaking about attention is objectual. What am I doing, though, when I am attending "to the apple"? I am engaged in the task, perhaps, of taking in its precise shape and color, being ready for any movements or changes, etc. Exactly which of these tasks I engage in is somewhat up to me, since I haven't been more specifically directed.

Pete: That sounds a little like Hill on "volume control" and a little like the "filter" theory of attention. It seems a little strange to me to think that thinking about unicorns is turning up the gain on the unicorn channel, as though there's a constant stream of unicornia running through my mind that simply passes unnoticed most of the time and can be selected. Do you mean to say that? Or what? It seems to me your metaphor works much better for sensory attention than for intellectual attention. But maybe you could explain more...?

Tanasije Gjorgoski said...


What are you trying to do, when you are enjoying something?

Say you are "hypnotized" with the beauty of some view (or taste of some mean, or beauty of some music), and you just look at it. It seems to me you aren't trying to do anything in those case, you just attend to those things and enjoy them.

BTW, I don't think that one needs to require that attention is relation between the person and the object in order to speak of person putting attention to the object.
1. One can also think of the attention as incidental to the object.
2. One can allow that depending on the intentional act, the intention is not put just on real object, but also on different things (imaginary, abstract, etc..)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Interesting objection, Tanasije. I agree your example puts strain on my view.

I should be clear that I don't think the "aim" has to be at a personal level. If your attention is caught, involuntarily, by hearing your name in conversation, that capture of attention isn't reflecting any personal aim; often it is an aim or end of a subpersonal system or (maybe better?) a goal of your whole organism but not one under your rational control. And that not-rationally-controled aim might be something like tracking what is being said about you.

So here I am, transfixed by the gorgeous view. Although it's not an intention I rationally endorse, I am gathering information about the lay of the land (say) or the diverse colors of the setting sun in the clouds. And one can speculate plausibly on how discovering patterns in richly colored visual arrays and taking in the lay of the land could be appealing ends from an evolutionary perspective. In any case, I am gathering information, willingly or not, and such information gathering is a teleological process.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

P.S. -- I agree with your second point. It's hard not to speak objectually about the target of attention. I think we can be seduced by that into a problematic view of attention. But I don't advocate abandoning that form of language.

Pete Mandik said...


I'm not exactly sure what might be bothering you about applying the gain view to intellectual events. here's a hopefully diagnostic question:

Do you think there can be thinking that is at onetime "in the background" and at another time "in the forefront"?

I'd say yes and offer that this happens, for example, when I'm working on a problem and then decide to "sleep on it" for a while. After awhile, I have a eureka moment.

And if the problem happens to be about unicorns, then I'd say, sure, I'm cool with postulating a constant stream of unicornia.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, Pete. That helps.

I don't see any reason to suppose that we can't somehow work through problems "in the background" as it were. I do worry, though, that the view you're suggesting will imply that we've got not only a constant stream of unicornia but a constant stream of everythingia all the time.

Now maybe you can say that. Memory, for example, might be a continuously active process of maintaining all those little things you remember. Then you turn up the "gain" on one and lo! it's at the center of your consciousness.

But I'm still inclined to resist the idea that when I devote intellectual attention to X I'm just doing in a louder, more vivid way -- simply adding "gain" to -- my constantly already ongoing thoughts about X, if that's the intention or implication of your view. Thinking about the best way to grandma's house in rush hour seems to me a novel task, a different kind of thing from what's going on all the time in me in the background.

Roman Altshuler said...

If you're trying to determine whether there's water over there, doesn't that mean you are looking for a specific object? I'm just not clear on how attention helps you get around object-talk.

If you're taking an extra step, trying to determine whether the water you see over there is a mirage, you seem to be looking for a difference between an existing object and a mirage object (incidentally, I don't see how you can have the aim of determining whether or not what you see is a mirage unless you've already seen it; so it is still not clear what it is you're seeing and why the aim explanation accounts for this better than the object explanation).

Also, it does seem pretty clear that what makes for a real hallucination is that you cannot, introspectively, distinguish it from reality. What you are seeing is an object in the world, which stands in the same relation to consciousness regardless of whether or not it is "real." You then undertake various practical investigations to determine whether or not the intention of the object is fulfilled. (I don't know nearly enough about this, but Husserl worked through it in excruciating detail.)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comment, Roman!

I have no problem with some acts of attention being acts of looking for objects. But that's not to say that attention, generally speaking, is a relationship between a person and an object. (There is no Fountain of Youth; looking for the Fountain of Youth is not a relationship between me and the Fountain of Youth.)

What am I seeing when I'm seeing a mirage? I'm not sure exactly how best to answer that question, except perhaps to say that it is misleadingly formulated. That question, like much talk also about attention, seems implicitly to assume that acts of seeing are relationships between people and objects so that there's always a "what", an object, you're seeing in any act of seeing. I'd suggest that mirage and hallucination cases put some stress on such a view.

I agree about hallucinations, more or less (though maybe some hallucinations can be known to be such), except that I don't know exactly what it means to determine whether "the intention of the object is fulfilled". Does that mean to try to determine whether things really are as they seem to be? Surely we can do that. Have I said anything that gives me trouble accounting for this?

Roman Altshuler said...

I'm just not clear why the attention account can deal better with hallucinations than the object account. The attention, in the case of hallucinations, seems to be directed toward discovering whether the object perceived is real or not, i.e., whether or not it enters into other relations with our world (can Macbeth use the dagger to stab someone? can I drink the water in a mirage?).

I get the sense that what underlies your account of attention is actually an "objectual model" of a particular kind, on which an object either exists or it doesn't (in a realist sense), and this sort of existence is a precondition for determining whether or not my attention is or is not a relation to an object.

But why not instead start from the presupposition that attention is directed to an object, and may have the further aim of determining whether that object is real? Not only does that seem to be how attention actually works, but--which was the point I tried to make in my last comment--this model seems to be presupposed by your account. My point about hallucinations was that if you don't think of attention as constituted by a relation to an object, then I am not sure how you could go about testing whether the object of your hallucination is real. What are you testing in that case if you don't think your attention is directed at any object at all?

Why do you say that my search for the Fountain of Youth is not a relation between me and the FoY? If I am genuinely searching for the FoY, then it seems like I must be searching for some object, even though that object may not exist. But you can only be certain that this is NOT a relation between myself and the FoY IF you are already certain that the FoY does not exist. This seems to create a problem, because it looks like you have to characterize attention not by looking at anything about attention, but by looking at the way the world "really is," or maybe how it might appear to God.

I think I am missing your point. But I'm just not sure what the advantage is of saying that attention is not object-directed unless you've established at the outset that "object" means "something already known to have existence independently of anyone's attention." But this would then create problems for attentional (or intentional) states like desire: If I want my paper to be published, then my attention here is directed toward a certain object (or state of affairs) which does not exist, and may never come to exist. But if my paper does get published, then does this mean that my attention was not a relation to an object but has now suddenly turned into a relation to an object?

Enigman said...

I'm wondering if there isn't a conflation of attention and the attempt to attend, here? Some perceptual input catches our attention, say a shimmering on the horizon (we are in a desert). We attempt to attend to a hypothetical object, an oasis. If there is an oasis there, we might attend to it, gaining more information about it. (We might even get direct knowledge of it, if the common sense refutation of scepticism is correct, as I believe it is.) If there is a mirage there, we will think that we are attending to an object. We will be making the same sort of attempt to attend to the object. (Or if you like, we will be attending to the same intentional object.) But the result will not be the attending to an object, but the false belief that we are so doing. (?)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I worry that we might be talking past each other a bit, Roman. My mirage/hallucination worry about the idea that attention is a relation to an object is really very simple-minded. There is no mirage or dagger to be related to. (You might say that we are related to an "intentional object" or something, but I'm not sure I know what that means.)

When I'm trying to figure out whether there really is a puddle of water on the road, I'd say that I've dedicated central cognitive resources to the task of determining, by directing my eyes in a certain direction and carefully digesting the visual input, and by means of background knowledge and the like, whether there really is a puddle there. In saying this, I make no reference to a relationship between myself and a mirage.

My objection to conceiving attention as a relationship to an object actually doesn't turn primarily on these types of cases, though. I'm not really driven by such metaphysical and epistemic issues as you're getting into in your last paragraph (though I think my account handles them neatly -- which I haven't convinced you of yet!).

My main concern is that I don't think it's natural to think of attention as a relationship to an object in non-perceptual cases -- cases like thinking of how to get to grandma's house, or how to solve a math puzzle, or when you're focusing on keeping your eyes still or playing a trill just right. One can posit objects, I suppose, in all these cases, but I think it's more natural to think of these cases in terms of aims or goals.

And then there's introspection -- my real ultimate target here -- and the problems that I think ensue from thinking of introspective attention as directed toward an object rather than as the dedication of resources toward a certain end. More on that in a future post!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comment Enigman. I'm afraid my reaction is that it displays very nicely the kinds of tangles you get into with too objectual a notion of attention!

It seems odd to me to say that I'm not really attending when it turns out there is no oasis. Central cognitive resources have been sucked up. I've been distracted. I've been unable to simultaneously engage in other attention-like tasks. I've reached conscious conclusions about how things stand in the world. In other words, I've engaged in a process whose cognitive role is very much the role of attention. It seems very natural and desirable to say I've attended. But if you think real attention always has to have a real object, then you can't say that I've really attended!

Well, one man's modus ponens is another's modus tollens. :)

Pete Mandik said...


The things attended to in perception aren't always there to be attended. Why, then, would I get stuck with such a view of of what's attended to in the intellectual case?

Roman Altshuler said...

So maybe the question is about what an "object" is. That is, are you thinking of objects as discrete physical units? Or are states of affairs also kinds of objects? What about, as my previous mention of desire indicates, possible states of affairs? I think this is important because planning to get to grandma's house or solving a math puzzle clearly does have an object in the latter sense. In fact, it is quite natural to say something like this: when I am planning a route to grandma's house, I have a goal of getting to her house, and aim at doing so in the shortest time. Both of these describe states of affairs, which may reasonably, in some sense, be called objects. Maybe you think that, even if this is "reasonable," it isn't quite natural to call these states objects. That's fine. But if I have aims and goals, then it seems that I am aiming at something, or that something is my goal, no? It isn't necessary to say that the object is primary, but an object in some sense and the aim or goal seem to reciprocally imply each other.

At least, it seems odd to say that, when I direct my attention at a mirage, I am "really" just directing my attention at an empty patch of desert. Because if so, how is seeing a mirage different from just seeing an empty patch of desert? This difference seems--if we are talking about intentional states--just as important as the difference between seeing a mirage and seeing an oasis.

Introspection may well be a different issue. I am happy to say that knowing that I have some mental state is not at all like knowing that there is an oasis in front of me. (I'm somewhat partial to Richard Moran's analysis of self-knowledge.) But this could simply suggest that attention to "internal states" is of a species entirely different from attention to "external objects."

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Pete, I agree the things aren't always there to be attended. So it's weird to think that attention is a relationship with them! (I'd have thought you'd be sympathetic with this, given that it has some similarities to your unicorn argument.)

Roman, I'm pretty liberal about metaphysics, since I don't think there are metaphysical facts, just choices about how to use terms, choices that can be better or worse relative to various projects. Here are two pragmatic reasons, then, not to insist that attention is always a relationship between a person and an object:

(1.) It gets you in linguistic/metaphysical tangles when there is no object. If you say the person aims at a goal, fewer tangles ensue. Goals can easily be unsatisfied or impossible.

(2.) To anticipate somewhat my treatment of introspection: Goals can easily subserve each other. One can aim at goal A by aiming at goal B as a preliminary. Objects can nest, but only if one is a *part* of the other. In introspection, for example, attending perceptually, I think, subserves the introspective goal. But if we think of introspective attention as directed at either an inward or outward *object* then, since the inward objects are not part of the outward objects, the attention must either be on one or the other (in or out) or somehow divided between them. And I don't think that is right.

Anonymous said...

When I experience (functional) auditory hallucinations my attention is divided between verbal thoughts and an external sound that substitute the vocal of my inner voice.

"In schizophrenia, functional hallucinations are defined as those that occur when a patient simultaneously receives a real stimulus in the perceptual field concerned (e.g., hallucinated voices heard simultaneously with—and specific to—the real sound of running water)"

If you want to read about my experience and attempt to understand this and other things that has to do with schizophrenia take a look at my homepage.

Stefan Andersson

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, Stefan! (Belatedly.)