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Attention and the Problem of Unity

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Carolyn Jennings

on 3 August 2013

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Transcript of Attention and the Problem of Unity

1. Conscious perception has
subject unity
2. Early sensory processing does not have
subject unity
3. Some process is required to bring about
subject unity
for early sensory processing in order to bring about conscious perception.

is required to bring about
subject unity
for early sensory processing in order to bring about conscious perception.
4. For a process to bring about
subject unity
for early sensory processing is for that process to prioritize that processing with respect to the current interests of the subject.
5. The prioritization of mental processing with respect to the current interests of the subject just is
is necessary for the
of conscious perception.
Attention and the Problem of Unity
Carolyn Dicey Jennings
University of Antwerp
From Attention to Unity, The Argument:
“At any given time, a subject has a multiplicity of conscious experiences…But at the same time, the experiences seem to be tied together in a deep way. They seem to be unified, by being aspects of a single encompassing state of consciousness.” (Bayne & Chalmers 2003)
Object Unity

Spatial Unity

Subsumptive Unity

Subject Unity
What is Perceptual Unity?
Parallel Processing: Neural Evidence
The Problem of Unity:
How can we explain the existence of perceptual unity, given the absence of unity in early sensory processing?
Parallel Processing: Behavioral Evidence
Attention and Conscious Perception: The Landscape
Attention as
conscious highlighter
(Campbell, Schwitzgebel)

Attention as
gating mechanism
between unconscious sensations and conscious experience (Prinz, Dehaene) or between levels of consciousness (Lamme, Koch & Tsuchiya, Block)

Attention as
unconscious sensory processing into unified percepts (Treisman & Gelade)
1. In this talk I raised the Problem of Unity: how can we explain the fact of perceptual unity given its absence in early sensory processing?

2. I proposed an account of perceptual unity that I call "subject unity": perceptual experiences are unified insofar as they are organized around the subject's current interests.

3. I claimed that the prioritization of early sensory processing according to the subject's current interests just is attention.

4. So, I conclude, it is attention that makes perceptual unity possible and allows us to solve the Problem of Unity.
“Millions of items of the outward order are present to my senses which never properly enter into my experience. Why? Because they have no interest for me. My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind – without selective interest, experience is an utter chaos.
Interest alone gives accent and emphasis, light and shade, background and foreground – intelligible perspective, in a word.
It varies in every creature, but without it the consciousness of every creature would be a gray chaotic indiscriminateness,
impossible for us even to conceive.” (James 1890)
"Attention first of all presupposes a transformation of the mental field, a new way for consciousness to be present to its objects. Take the act of attention whereby I locate a point on my body which is being touched....A vaguely located spot, this contradictory phenomenon reveals a pre-objective space where there is indeed extension, since several points on the body touched together are not confused by the subject, but as yet no univocal position, because no spatial framework persists from one perception to another.
The first operation of attention is, then, to create for itself a field, either perceptual or mental, which can be `surveyed.'
" (Merleau-Ponty 1962)
"But consider cases of multitasking, as when we walk down the street while listening to music. To me, the phenomenological intuition that these concurrent experiences are unified is weak at best. When we tap to music, there is clear unity between sound and motion, but when we walk while listening, isn't it possible that the conscious stream splits in two?
Are audible background sounds unified with foreground activities?
Is the taste of coffee unified with the philosophical conversation that you experience when meeting a friend at a café? Intuitions may differ on these examples, but even a split vote would spell trouble for the Unity Thesis. The positive case for universal unity is based on a phenomenological intuition that may be less secure than Bayne would have us believe." (Prinz 2013)
"Take the example of the dripping tap: a man is trying to fall asleep (his main interest) but a dripping tap prevents him from doing so.
If this theory were correct, the dripping tap would not be disturbing the man's experience.
" (rough transcription, David Chalmers 2012)
Why Attention?
What is "attention"?

Everybody knows
Direction of focus
What it is you are thinking about
Filtering mechanism
Intentional focus
William James: Attention Provides the Structure of Conscious Perception
Maurice Merleau-Ponty: Attention Uses a Common Spatial Matrix to Provide that Structure
Full transcript