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Relationship Between Attention and Consciousness

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Psychology
Wordcount: 1988 words Published: 27th Mar 2018

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What is the relationship between attention and consciousness?

There is a close relationship between the focus of attention and consciousness (Velmans, 1995). It is very obvious that they are related but there are many different views of how they are related (Blackmore, 2010). Velmans (2000) said that it is whatever our attention is focussed on that enters into our consciousness. Mack and Rock (1998) argued that there is no conscious perception without attention, meaning that we need attention in order to be aware of something.

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This leads us to one very popular debate of whether or not attention is necessary for conscious awareness – can we be conscious of something when it is not the focus of our attention? Many scholars argue that it is necessary as when our attention is diverted away from something, we lose awareness of it (Ahmadi et al., 2011). It is also debated whether or not attention is sufficient for conscious awareness. This essay will aim to examine whether or not attention is both necessary and sufficient for conscious awareness.

There is a lot of research to support the view that attention is necessary which shows that we can be looking at clearly but not be consciously aware of it unless our attention is directly focussed on it (Mack, 2003). This is a phenomenon called inattentional blindness. One study which demonstrates this phenomenon is by Simons & Chabris (1999) where participants were told to watch a video and count how many times a ball was passed by either the white or black team (determined by the colour of their t-shirts). During the video, either a woman holding an umbrella or a woman in a gorilla suit walked through the scene, but the players continued to pass the ball and didn’t draw any attention to the woman. Overall, almost half of the participants did not notice the unexpected event. This shows that, because the participants’ attention was focused on a task, they did not notice the woman or gorilla walking through the scene. In other words, due to their lack of attention, they were not consciously aware of seeing the unexpected object even though it appeared in clear view. This demonstrates that we do not always see what we are looking directly at when we are attending to something else and in order to become aware of an object, we are required to attend to it. This study suggests that attention is necessary for awareness as in this case, even though they were looking at the screen, they did not notice the woman/gorilla as their attention was focussed on something else.

Tsuchiya & Koch (2008) support the other side of this debate which is that attention is not necessary for consciousness. They believe that when our attention is diverted away from an event or object, it only fades from, and is not removed from consciousness so we can still have a vague awareness of something even though our attention is not focused on it. They proposed that when our attention is not focussed on our environment, we are still aware of the “gist” of it, meaning that we have consciousness without focal-attention (De Brigard & Prinz, 2010). They reported that we can perceive the gist of a scene when it is presented to us for only 30 milliseconds which is not enough time to purposely focus our attention on it. Therefore, they argue that we can become conscious of something which is not the focus of our attention meaning that attention is not required for consciousness. However, De Brigard & Prinz (2010) argue that although it is not the focus of our attention, it does not occur completely out with attention but instead in the near absence of attention. Therefore, although Tsuchiya & Koch (2008) argue that this finding provides evidence that attention is not required for consciousness, it in fact does not as it only considers what we can perceive in the near absence and not the complete absence of attention. We may be able to perceive the gist of something without our full attention but we are conscious of a lot more when we fully attend to something (De Brigard & Prinz, 2010).

Another phenomenon is ‘change blindness’ where we are not consciously aware of the stimuli even when our attention is focussed on the task. Lamme (2003) conducted an experiment into change blindness where he showed two images separated by an interval of a grey screen. The first image was of multiple items and the second image was the same but one of the items had changed. It was found that when the changed item was cued in the second image, only 60% of participants were able to report that the item had been changed. However, if the item was cued in the first image, participants were able to answer correctly 100% of the time. This was because the participants were able to focus their attention on the cued item whereas, when the item was not cued until the second image, the participants had to distribute their attention to all of the items in the first image and were not able to focus their attention on any. These findings show that attention is necessary for consciousness as the participants performed better when their attention was directly focussed on the area of change.

However, Lamme himself argued the opposite. When the item was not cued until the interval, after the items had been removed from view, participants still performed almost as well as they did when the item was cued in the first image (88%) – the items could still be reported even when they had not been cued until after they had disappeared from view (De Brigard & Prinz, 2010). He therefore believed that this suggested that attention is not necessary for consciousness as the items remained in our consciousness even though our attention had not been focussed on the item. This view could be argued against, as although attention was not focussed on the item, all of the items were still attended to in the first image and by cueing the item in the interval, straight after it disappeared from view and before it was replaced by another item, this could be why participants still performed well.

Another experiment of change blindness was by Rensink et al. (1997) where a visual flicker between an original image and a modified version of the image was used in order to disrupt the participants’ attention. Participants were told beforehand that there was a difference between the two images and they had to report the change once they noticed it. This meant that, unlike Simons and Chabris’ (1999) experiment, the participants’ attention was focused on looking for a change. It was found that when the visual flicker was not present, the difference between the images was very obvious to spot (average of 0.9 seconds) but when the visual flicker was used, it took participants an average of 10.9 seconds to notice what the difference was. This suggests that attention is necessary for awareness as when our attention is disrupted; we take a lot longer to become aware of something we are looking for than when our attention is able to focus. It could be argued that this finding also suggests that attention is insufficient for awareness as participants’ attention was on the task at hand but still, change blindness occurred. However, these findings could also be argued to show that attention is sufficient as, when attention was allowed to be focussed on the task at hand without any distractions, the change was noticed straight away.

Simons & Levin (1998) also investigated change blindness but they assessed our consciousness in the real world instead of looking at images. They predicted that people would be more able to perceive the details of a scene when they are directly interacting within the real world. In this experiment, the experimenter stopped a participant in the street to ask for directions. During their conversation, people walked in between the participant and experimenter carrying a large door. This is when the experimenter was swapped for a different person. It was found that less than half of the participants noticed that the person had changed. This finding suggests that attention is not sufficient for consciousness as participants were not aware of the change even when attention was focussed on the changing object. Simons & Levin argued that the participants did not focus on the visual details but only of the gist of the scene/person. Therefore they believe that attention is not enough and we need to put effort into encoding visual details of a scene/person in order to be aware of changes. However, one flaw of the experiment is that the participants’ attention may not have been focussed on the person they were giving the directions to but was instead focused on giving the directions. This therefore questions whether or not the failure of change detection occurred within the focus of attention and perhaps does not provide evidence that attention is not sufficient.

Overall, it seems as though there is a strong relationship between attention and consciousness as the more able we are to focus our attention, the more we are able to be conscious of. However, the relationship remains in much debate and it does not appear likely that there will be an agreement any time soon. With that said, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that attention is necessary for consciousness as our awareness is a lot less detailed and a lot slower when our attention is not focussed. There is also evidence to suggest that attention is not sufficient for consciousness as even when attention is focussed, it is not always enough to result in awareness. Therefore it could be argued, and is a very popular viewpoint among psychologists, that while attention is necessary for consciousness, it is not enough. Future research should focus on what factors, other than attention, could play an important role in determining consciousness, such as memory. The studies reviewed here all considered visual attention so future research could also focus on attention in other senses such as auditory attention.


Ahmadi, M. R., Gilakjani, A. P. & Ahmadi, S. M. (2011). The Relationship between Attention and Consciousness. Journal of Language Teaching and Research, 2 (6), 1366-1373.

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Simons, D. J. & Levin, D. T. (1998). Failure to detect changes to people during a real-world interaction. Pscyhonomic Bulletin & Review, 5(4), 644-649.

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Velmans, M. (1995).The Relation of Consciousness to the Material World. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 2 (3), 255-265

Velmans, M. (2000). Understanding Consciousness. Psychology Press.


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