Sometimes our mind is a mess. Thoughts and experiences pile up, and our mind flips from one thing to another: I need to buy milk, I have an important meeting tomorrow, and, no, the bills have still not been paid; it’s my friends birthday, the face of that person reminds me of someone I met in college, and the advertisement blaring from the loudspeakers tells me that a new shampoo will change my life. When our mind is such a mess, our life easily becomes a mess too. We forget to write the memo for the meeting, and return home with a shampoo we didn’t need. In such moments, it is easy to agree with Hume that a mind is just a heap of perceptions, feelings, and ideas.
Luckily, most of our minds are not always like this. But why not? What aspect of the mind organizes it? Attention, I argue, is an important part of the answer.
Attention shapes perception, what and how we think, the way we feel, and how we act. But the deep integration with other aspects of our lives also gives rise to a host of challenges for an account of attention. First, how could a single process be involved in such disparate and diverse parts of our lives? Is there really anything in common between visual attention, attention in thought, and when we prepare a friend’s birthday with all our attention? Second, how is attention related to other aspects of the mind? In order to focus her attention on something, a subject must also, it seems, have the object of her attention in her mind in some other way: she must, for example, see it, hear it, thinks about it, or feel emotions directed at that object. But how, then, is attention different from those other aspects of the mind, on which it seems to depend? Third, what can be explained by reference to a general capacity for attention that cannot be explained by the various specific processes that shape perception, thought, emotion, and desire? Finally, attention seems to be associated with a kind of prominence in consciousness. How can an explanatory account of attention that meets the other challenges be integrated with an account that explains its role in shaping conscious experience?
Many philosophers, psychologists and neuroscientists who work on attention have come to think that there can be no single overarching theory of attention that meets these and other challenges. In a sense, there is no such thing as attention. I believe that we can meet the challenges head-on. In order to get attention into clear view, we must step back from the specific mental processes and elements of the mind. We must start with mental structure. We get a satisfactory theory of attention, once we recognize a fundamental structure of the mind that so far has been largely neglected. It is the mind’s priority structure. Our mind is not an unorganized heap of mental states but has a structure more like a stack: on top of an agent’s present priority stack are some mental elements and processes, while other elements are pushed down on the stack.
Attention can now be seen as the activity of regulating these priority structures. It is a general purpose organizing activity through which an agent unifies her mental life. Attention integrates the elements of the mind and coordinates between them. It depends on other aspects of the mind, because it has them as its parts. But the parts, the specific elements of a subject’s mind, are contained in a structure that cannot be reduced to what is in the structure.
The priority structure view of attention enables a unified account of attention. In perception, attention structures the field of perceptually presented qualities. We can, for example, selectively listen to the rhythmic qualities of the music and background what it tries to sell to us. Through changing the priority structure of perceptual experience, we perceptually attune our mind to specific aspects of the environment. But priority structures don’t just organize perception: while the agent follows a train of thought, her attention organizes a field of associated images, and her experience of her environment may now be relegated to a rather low priority position. Nor do priority structures need to be short-lived. An agent whose attention is occupied by a long-term project will prioritize incoming information and feelings that are relevant to the pursuit of that project and de-prioritize those that are irrelevant (if she gets distracted, her priority structures will become less stable). In different cases, attentional priority will be realized by different forms of neuronal and computational processing. What is common is role of attention as mental management.
The priority structure view of attention lets us integrate an explanatory account of attention with one that respects it role in shaping conscious experience. The distinctive explanatory role of attention consists in organizing an agent’s mental life “online” without making changes to what she wants or believes. Through temporary suppression of the semantic content of the advertisements message, the agent gains what David Foster Wallace calls “an important kind of freedom,” a freedom to react flexibly to what impinges on the sense or shows up in our mind in some other way. This freedom makes a distinctive contribution to the field of experience: priority structure manifests in consciousness as the differentiation of center and periphery. This structure is not another quality of consciousness. It is also not a structure that the agent appears to find in the world, like the spatial organization of our environment. The freedom that Foster Wallace speaks of is the freedom of actively taking a specific stance – in conscious experience – on the world we appear to encounter.
Featured image: Purchasing shopping cart, photo by Heinz Anton Meier. Public Domain via Pixabay.