The Subject of Consciousness
© C.O. Evans

Chapter 3

Attention - 3.2.5 [table of contents]  [previous]  [next]

2. Rejection of the Notion of an Attention-Free Consciousness

[5] I begin with the case of a pure sensuous consciousness. I should point out that as far as human beings are concerned a pure sensuous consciousness might be just an abstract possibility (i.e. not realized). That is to say, it might represent an ideal limit to consciousness in one direction which is only approached but never actually reached. My argument is that even as an abstract possibility it does not constitute a counter-instance. What I am calling a pure sensuous consciousness can best be explained through an example. We have all had the experience of being asked out of the blue what we are thinking about. On occasion we say that we have not been thinking about anything in particular, not because we wish to be secretive about our thoughts, but because it seems the truthful answer to give. It might be the case that the question was put at a time when we were not having thoughts about anything, but were simply enjoying our present sensations. Lying on a beach sunbathing could be a circumstance in which this would be true. I might be conscious of the sun burning into me, the lapping of the waves, the light coming through my eyelids, the indistinct sound of voices, and so on. Naturally if asked what I was thinking about I would not take the question to be aimed at discovering what I was conscious of. I would take it to be directed at anything I was thinking about which I took to be relevant or interesting to the questioner, and, from that point of view, it is often honest to say: 'Nothing.' Often in a state of euphoria one says, 'My mind is in a complete blank.' It is just such a state in which we give ourselves up to our sensations and allow our minds to go blank that I describe as a state of pure sensuous consciousness.

I wish to argue that a total temporary state of a pure sensuous consciousness does not contain a number of elements which are all equally submerged in the background, but, on the contrary, that at each moment some one element has the ascendency over the rest. If we try to check this by introspection, we run into several difficulties. In the first place it is not easy to make one's mind go blank. And secondly it is not easy to find out what takes place when one is in a state of pure sensuous consciousness without thereby destroying the state. For these reasons we are forced to rely on memory of such states, and base our findings on what we seem to remember. We may not, even in retrospect, be able to tell just

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which element was more to the fore than the rest at a particular time. The reason for this is that we are dealing with a fluid situation, in which one element is continually being ousted by another from the centre of consciousness. Furthermore, when in a state of nonattention we are not bothered by the question of which element is at a particular time holding the central position. Naturally, too, any element which is in the foreground will possess a poorly differentiated character. The foreground, as in the case of a badly focused spot-light, will be large and obscure, and this means that the element occupying this position will be similarly ill-formed and ill-defined. For instance, in a sunbather's consciousness a general sensation of heat may occupy the central position for a brief period, and then be replaced by an undifferentiated auditory sensation, which itself might be followed by the visual sensation caused by the light of the sun passing through closed eye-lids.

I am not suggesting that these elements are not present all at once - they are. What I am suggesting is that at any one time one element is insinuating its presence more insistently than the others. In other words, I am maintaining that James was right to divide consciousness into a foreground and a background, even in a situation which approximates as closely as experience seems to allow to one of absolute nonattention.

I have offered purely introspective evidence to back up the claim that consciousness, even in a state that can be described as one of complete nonattention, seems to be structured into a foreground and background. But even if it is agreed that introspection bears me out, it is not necessary to rest the case on the evidence of introspection alone. An explanation can, I believe, be offered for the phenomenon, which may well be convincing to those who remain unmoved by the introspective evidence.

It is Ribot's thesis that attention is grounded in the emotional nature of the organism, and in support of this view he uses the following argument:

Any animal so organized that the impressions of the external world were all of equal significance to it, in whose consciousness all impressions stood upon the same level, without any single one predominating or inducing any appropriate motory adaptation - were exceedingly ill-equipped for its own preservation. I shall overlook the extreme case, in which predominance and adaptation would favour detrimental impressions; for an animal thus

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constituted must perish, being an illogical organism - a kind of incorporate contradiction. The usual case remains, viz: the predominance of useful sensations, that is, of those connected with nutrition, self-defence, and the propagation of the species. The impressions of prey to be caught, of an enemy to be avoided, and from time to time, of a female to be fecundated, become settled in the consciousness of the animal with their adapted movements. Attention, thus, is at the service of and dependent upon necessities; always connected with the sense most perfectly developed, the sense of touch, of sight, of hearing, of smelling, according to the species. Here attention is seen in all its simplicity, and here it affords the most instruction. It was necessary to descend to those rudimentary forms, in order to grasp the reason of its power: - attention is a condition of life...  59

We may agree with Ribot that if, per impossible, a percipient could be absolutely indifferent to its environment, there would be no reason for it to pay attention to changes which took place in the environment of which it was aware.

We might in fact go one step further than Ribot, and question whether a percipient could continue to be conscious if its awareness of its environment ceased to matter to it. In any event it is possible that Ribot has pressed his point too far. We find him saying, for instance, that, 'man, like animals, lends his attention spontaneously only to what concerns and interests him'. 60 This view lends itself to the overstatement that man, as well as animal, can only have his attention attracted by something which has an emotional significance for him. Indeed Ribot himself says, 'Spontaneous attention without an anterior emotional state would be an effect without a cause'. 61 The danger of this position is that it becomes true by definition that if a percipient spontaneously attends that which holds the attention must be of concern or interest to it.

We may therefore agree with Ribot that spontaneous attention is grounded in emotional states, without following him to the point of saying that every instance of spontaneous attention is caused by an emotional state. But would this, as Ribot thinks, be an 'event' without a cause? Surely not, for what the emotional state does is

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give the percipient a propensity to have its attention elicited by changes in the intensity of stimuli. The position as I see it is this: no percipient is indifferent to its environment (so far I am in agreement with Ribot), but because the environment is of interest and concern, every perceptible change in it taken by the percipient to be novel must alert it. The percipient is alerted when, quite involuntarily, its sense-organs are arrested by the novel stimuli. This can best be understood in terms of one or two examples. We are all familiar with the experience in which a sudden movement, or a flash of light, catches the eye. As soon as the movement, or the light, is seen, the eye is held by the novel stimulus. The eye comes to rest on the moving or flashing object before the object is recognized, or before there is time for its relevance to be evaluated. As we say, the object has caught our attention. A similar experience occurs when an unexpected sound strikes the ear. The sound itself excites our attention, in advance of any interpretation of its significance for us. In other words, the response of the sense-organ to a novel stimulus is very much like an unconditioned reflex.

The objection that many quite startling stimuli do not arrest the sense-organ concerned can be quite easily disposed of. To an infant all environmental stimuli are novel and startling. As it accommodates itself to its environment, however, it finds progressively fewer stimuli novel: stimuli which startle because of their novelty cease to do so when a number of repetitions are found to be without repercussion. Thus, the infant may be startled by a clap of thunder which an adult ignores. As the infant develops it learns to inhibit the reflex-like response of the sense-organs to certain types of stimuli. But what is inhibited cannot be the initial arrest of the sense-organ - the stimulus is still 'picked up': the adult hears the thunderclap that startles the infant. What the adult has inhibited is any further reaction - such as the assumption of a posture of attention.

I have suggested this alternative to Ribot's theory, because it seems to me to offer an intelligible account of facts which on his theory remain a mystery. Ribot tells us that only a percipient with an emotional involvement in its environment can exhibit attention, but he does not explain how the environment is to have a repercussion on the percipient in the first place. This my alternative attempts to clarify.

My departure from Ribot's position has certain interesting implications. It is one of his basic contentions that the normal state

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of a percipient is one of nonattention, and it follows that attention is for him an exceptional phenomenon. As he explains:

Attention is an exceptional, abnormal state, which cannot last a long time, for the reason that it is in contradiction to the basic condition of psychic life; namely, change. Attention is a state that is fixed. If it is prolonged beyond a reasonable time, particularly under unfavourable conditions, everybody knows from individual experience, that there results a constantly increasing cloudiness of the mind, finally a kind of intellectual vacuity, frequently accompanied by vertigo. These light, transient perturbations denote the radical antagonism of attention and the normal psychical life. The progress toward unity of consciousness, which is the very basis of attention, manifests itself still better in clearly morbid cases, which we shall study later under their chronic form, namely, the "fixed idea", and in their acute form, which is ecstasy. 62

According to the way I see the matter, Ribot has been led to overemphasize the abnormality of attention. This I shall try to show. It is true that we are reluctant to attribute consciousness to an entity that cannot do things of its own accord. When a creature is not active we begin to doubt whether it is conscious. For this reason we are reluctant to admit it as a logical possibility that an object such as a tree could be conscious. 63 A tree does not do anything. It is a natural state of a conscious being that it should be active; that it should be doing things.

In the case of an animal, most of its waking life is devoted to activity. It is grazing or drinking; it is on the alert for danger, looking about, listening, scenting the air, and so forth. These are natural activities in the sense that the animal does not have to be taught to do them. (It has to be taught to do them recognitionally, but that is another matter.) Even an infant does not have to be taught to do such basic things as move its arms and legs, look about, and focus its eyes on objects. These 'doings' occur spontaneously at certain stages of normal growth.

If we confine the discussion of 'doings' to those involving the senses, then it would seem quite arbitrary to say that those sense-organ activities that involve movement of the sense-organs are normal, and those that involve suspension of movement are

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abnormal. If looking about is normal, and listening for is normal, so surely is looking at and listening to; and yet frequently the latter activities can only be engaged in when movement is suspended. Of course if such a static activity went on too long it would become mesmerization, and that would be abnormal. But it would be no more abnormal than would the continuance of any activity long after it had lost point. It is surely obvious, too, that the exploratory use of sense-organs has value for a creature only if the sense-organs can also be used to fixate an object of interest. I shall use the expression 'sense-organ attention' to describe the involuntary fixation of a sense-organ on an object. Contrary to what Ribot says, sense-organ attention is as normal an activity as is the activity in which the sense-organs are used for the purpose of 'scanning' the surroundings. It would be obviously false to describe sense-organ attention as being 'in contradiction to the basic condition of psychic life'.

The difference between Ribot's position and mine is not as great as would appear, and with a little qualification the two can be brought into harmony. What we need to realize is that in the above passage Ribot is clearly referring to maximal attention. Now I would certainly be prepared to follow him in his claim that maximal attention is an abnormal state, which cannot be sustained for very long periods, but this is a far cry from the claim that even minimal attention is abnormal. I think it is true to say that Ribot was misled, in just the way that James was misled, by thinking exclusively of maximal attention, and assuming that what is true of maximal attention is true of all attention. He in fact points out at the very beginning of his study that he intends to confine himself to cases of attention that are 'marked and typical'.

It is a matter of much greater difficulty to know at what point attention begins, and where it ends; for it embraces all degrees from the transient instant accorded to the buzzing of a fly, to the state of complete absorption. It will be conformable to the rule of sound method only to study cases that are marked and typical; that is to say, those which present at least one of the following two characteristics: intensity and duration. 64

It is evident that whereas my discussion of a pure sensuous consciousness concentrates on the end of the scale at which

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attention is minimal, Ribot is concerned with the end of the scale at which attention is maximal. Moreover, Ribot, who distinguishes two forms of attention, 'spontaneous' attention and 'voluntary' attention,' 65 makes it equally true of both forms of attention that they are 'antagonistic' to the 'normal psychical life'. In due course I shall try to show that in terms of his own theory Ribot is in error when he makes this claim in respect of spontaneous attention. We are now in a position to understand why it is that in a state described as one of nonattention, consciousness is nevertheless structured into a part which is in the foreground, and a remainder which fills the background. My example of a person lying on the beach sunbathing probably comes as close as is possible in normal conditions to a person having a pure sensuous consciousness (assuming as my example made clear that the sunbather would later claim that his mind was a blank). I maintained, on introspective grounds, that there would always be some sense experience which would constitute the foreground of the sunbather's consciousness. Why this should be so can now be explained in terms of what I have called sense-organ attention. As I explained, our sense-organs are always arrested by the most novel stimulus in the environment. Thus if the increasing intensity of the heat of the sun on his back is the most novel feature of the environment for the sunbather, that sensation will spontaneously occupy the foreground of his consciousness. 66 This it will continue to do until another stimulus occurs which is more novel than the sensation of heat. It might be the sudden break of a wave, or the shrill call of a sea-gull. Attention will then spontaneously transfer to the sound, and the sound will take the place of the previous sensation, and itself occupy the foremost position in consciousness. Since a sound is usually a transitory stimulus, after it has ceased the next relatively most novel stimulus will arrest the sense-organs and so place yet another element in the foreground. It may be that a cloud hides the sun and then immediately, even with eyes closed, the sudden darkening sensation to the sunbather's eyes leaps to the foreground of consciousness.

The fact therefore that consciousness seems always to be differentiated into a foreground and a background, even in this

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condition of nonattention, must be attributed to the way our sense-organs function in relation to changes in stimuli. If what Ward means, when he contends that attention is exhibited in all consciousness, is that consciousness is always differentiated into a foreground and a background, then we have found every reason to agree with him. The examination of a pure sensuous consciousness has shown it to be a form of consciousness exhibiting a structure. This structure has a twofold character which comes about because some of its elements constitute a foreground relative to which others constitute a background. The notion of sense-organ attention was introduced in an attempt to offer an explanation of this structure.

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59. Ribot, The Psychology of Attention, p. 33.]
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60. Ibid., pp. 12-13.
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61. Ibid p. 13.]
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62. Ribot, The Psychology of Attention, pp. 8-9.]
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63. See, N. Malcolm, Knowledge and Certainty (New Jersey, 1963), pp. 133-6.
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64. Ribot, The Psychology of Attention, p. 7.
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65. I have deliberately avoided discussing the question of the different forms of attention until this became unavoidable. My intention is to avoid obscuring the argument by introducing too many considerations at once. The subject is discussed in sections 8 and 9.
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66. In the present context the body as a whole may be thought of as a sense-organ.
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