What Is Attention?

If you cut up a large diamond into little bits, it will entirely lose the value it had as a whole; and as an army divided up into small bodies of soldiers, loses all its strength. So a great intellect sinks to the level of an ordinary one, as soon as it is interrupted and disturbed, its attention distracted and drawn off from the matter in hand; for its superiority depends upon its power of concentration—of bringing all its strength to bear upon one theme.

- Arthur Schopenhauer, On Noise

Podcast of the Day

The mental phenomenon of attention is often thought of metaphorically as a kind of spotlight: we focus our attention on a particular item or task, our attention is divided or diffused when we try to text and drive at the same time, and our attention is captured when we suddenly hear our name pop out from the conversational hubbub of a noisy party. But what is attention? How seriously should we take this or other metaphors as giving us insight into the nature of attention? In Attention (Routledge, 2014) Wayne Wu argues for the view that attention is selection for action and is distinct from consciousness. This controversial position pits him against more common views that attention is in some sense essentially connected to consciousness – for example, that it is a kind of gatekeeper for consciousness. Wu, an Associate Professor of philosophy at Carnegie Mellon University, draws on empirical literature from psychology and neuroscience to develop his view while acknowledging how difficult it is to interpret results so as to support one theory or another.

Listen to Wayne Wu on Attention on the New Books in Philosophy podcast

Video of the Day

Short Article of the Day

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...

Continue reading Sebastian Watzl's article: Attention, or how to organize the mind

Further Reading

Attention is involved in the selective directedness of our mental lives. The nature of this selectivity is one of the principal points of disagreement between the extant theories of attention. Some of the most influential theories treat the selectivity of attention as resulting from limitations in the brain's capacity to process the complex properties of multiple perceptual stimuli. Other theories take the selectivity of attention to be the result of limitations in the thinking subject's capacity to consciously entertain multiple trains of thought....

Continue reading the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Attention by Christopher Mole

Related Topics

 Cognition | Intelligence | Memory | Mindfulness

Each day I post short quotes by great thinkers on a particular philosophical, scientific or historical topic, along with videos, interviews and articles by contemporary thinkers that explore each topic in more detail. Find me on Facebook or Twitter or enter your email below to learn about the ideas that helped shape our world.