The Subject of Consciousness
© C.O. Evans

Chapter 3

Attention - 3.1.4 [table of contents]  [previous]  [next]

I. Consciousness and Change

[4] William James resorts to visual metaphor when he speaks of the 'focalization' of attention, and we shall see in a moment that Hamilton uses an elaborate visual analogy to describe attention. It is in fact difficult to avoid talking about attention in visual terms, nor do I think we should refrain from so portraying it. Visual descriptions, and visual distinctions, are far richer and have a greater degree of subtlety than their alternatives, and it would be foolish for us to handicap ourselves by avoiding their use. But we must be watchful not to be deceived by the analogy into thinking that what is true of the analogue is true generally; for it might be that we are unwittingly dealing with a non-analogous feature of the analogue.

When James talks of 'focalizing' attention, and the 'foreground' and 'background' of consciousness, he is using ideas which find their natural home in visual perception. Hamilton quite unabashedly takes the analogy with vision to the limit when he says,

Consciousness may be compared to a telescope, attention to the pulling out or in of the tubes in accommodating the focus to the object. 56

Now the idea of focusing, and the idea of concentrating, carry with them the idea of something being focused, and the concentration taking place around a centre. Both ideas point to a 'centre of attention'. Furthermore, once we have the picture of a centre, we think of the centre as standing out from its surroundings, and we can describe the centre as in the foreground as contrasted with what is outside the centre, which is relegated to the background. 57 The usefulness of the visual model is enhanced because it so easily accommodates the idea of degrees of attention.

The structural relationship between foreground and background will be determined by the nature of the centre. On the one hand there could be a large centre with ill-defined edges which

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imperceptibly merge into the background; on the other hand, there could be a highly concentrated centre which stands out in sharp contrast against the background. We may think of the operation of a spot-light to give us a picture of one sort of centre passing into the other. If a spot-light is completely out of focus for a certain distance, it will throw a wide, diffuse, beam giving a low degree of illumination. As we correct the focus, the circumference of the beam contracts, and the intensity of illumination correspondingly increases, until the point is reached at which the spot-light is fully in focus, and we have a brightly lit area with a sharply defined circumference. It is important to realize that both the badly focused beam, and the sharply focused one cast light on an area that may be described as consisting of a centre occupying the foreground and a complementing background. 58

By analogy, the centre of attention could have a low degree of concentration (produced by a badly focused beam), or a high degree of concentration (produced by a sharply focused beam). Moreover any distinction at all between a foreground and a background would entail the existence of some degree of attention, no matter how little (corresponding to a beam of some degree of concentration). Hence, when James distinguishes between a foreground to consciousness and a background in the case of a 'distracted' consciousness, he ipso facto describes a consciousness differentiated by attention.

That which is at the centre of attention is frequently described as the object of attention. This description, too, we owe to a visual analogy, since objects are among the things we are said to see. In view of the fact that there is no standard description of that on which attention may be said to be centred, I shall employ the term 'object of attention' specifically for that purpose. An object of attention is thus, by definition, anything on which attention is focused. It must be understood that the visual connotations of the

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word 'object' have no relevance to the defined term 'object of attention'. A thought, a sensation, or an imaginary object are as properly called 'objects of attention' as are visual objects.

The discussion of James's point of view has served two purposes. Firstly, it has suggested the idea that consciousness may be organized into a foreground and a background. Secondly, it has introduced the idea of an attention-free consciousness. Both of these ideas are important for the hypothesis I now wish to advance. The hypothesis is that the differentiation of consciousness into a foreground and background is a feature of all normal forms of consciousness. 1 have already shown the appropriateness of describing the operation of attention in visual terms. And I have discussed the applicability to attention of the model of a foreground marked off from a background through the presence of a 'centre' on which attention is focused. From that discussion it becomes obvious that we would experience no difficulty in showing that those forms of consciousness that exhibit a high degree of attention could be appropriately described in terms of a foreground and a background. The object of attention would function as the 'centre' marking off foreground from background. The crucial test of the hypothesis would be to see whether a seemingly attention-free consciousness also displayed this distinction between foreground and background. I have pointed out that the hypothesis seems true in the case of the 'distracted' consciousness described by James.

I now wish to offer more detailed support for the hypothesis by showing that it is borne out in the case of two forms of consciousness. These are, firstly, a pure sensuous consciousness, and, secondly, a state of reverie. If the hypothesis were false, these two forms of consciousness would show it. If, however, the hypothesis is confirmed for such prima facie unpromising forms of consciousness, we can take it to have been established. Anyone wishing to dispute the correctness of the hypothesis would have to show that these two forms of consciousness together with the normal forms, which it must be conceded are attentive forms, do not exhaust the known forms of consciousness. It should be noted that the first form of consciousness can be satisfied by a single total temporary state, and it, therefore, tests the hypothesis in the one dimension of consciousness. The second form of consciousness is only satisfied by a series of total temporary states, and it, therefore, tests the hypothesis in the other dimension of consciousness.

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56. Ibid., p. 160.
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57. Gestalt Psychology furnishes plenty of evidence of the fact that anything seen as a centre automatically seems to stand out from a background.
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58. It is no accident that we describe an object in focus as being situated in the centre of the field of vision. It is based on a fact in physiology. 'In the centre of the retina, in the fovea centralis (the pit in the middle of the so-called yellow spot) there are only cones, and no rods at all. From there toward the periphery of the retina the number of cones decreases and the rods become more and more numerous. The fovea centralis is of paramount importance in our vision. This tiny spot is the only place where you see a sharp image. If you see something in the lateral field of your retina and want to investigate it more thoroughly, you turn your eye so as to cause the image of that object to be projected exactly onto your fovea centralis.' W. von Buddenbrock, The Senses (The Univ. of Michigan Press, 1958), P 80.]
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