What Is the Connection between Attention and Consciousness?

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  • Written By: C.J. Wells
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  • Last Modified Date: 23 October 2019
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The connection between attention and consciousness is an intimate one. Although these psychological terms are sometimes used synonymously in informal speech and writing, they are very distinct. Consciousness is, quite simply, the state of being aware. Attention, on the other hand, requires the processing capacity of the brain to be consciously directed toward filtering or separating out of incoming, competing information.

At its most basic, physiologically speaking, consciousness is the state of being awake, or not unconscious. Consciousness also differs from subconsciousness in that the person who is in a state of consciousness can directly access and report his or her mental experiences. For a functioning human being, consciousness is a normal, natural state, and generally no effort is required to achieve it.

Attention can be best illustrated by the classic “cocktail party phenomenon,” which demonstrates how a person, in a room full of people speaking, can focus on one single conversation. Both consciousness and effort are required to achieve attention. In other words, one can be fully conscious but not paying attention, but one can’t be paying attention without being conscious.


Cognitive psychology is a branch of psychology that studies the higher mental processes, such as attention, consciousness, reasoning, language and memory. It is within this discipline that a discussion of the connection between attention and consciousness can most readily be found. In terms of attention, cognitive psychologists seek to define when the filtering process begins and ends and when selective attention is engaged. Sustained consciousness might be considered effortless and endless as long as the person is wide awake, but sustained, vigilant attention for more than 20 minutes is very difficult to maintain. Cognitive psychologists place limits on consciousness, stressing that consciousness can be restricted to specific levels of processing.

There is considerable scholarly debate regarding the theoretical connection between attention and consciousness, and many theories are distinctly opposed. For example, although many scholars agree that attention and consciousness are distinct, some argue that without attention, conscious perception is impossible. Others argue that attention is possible without consciousness and say that experimental data backs up their claims.

To a certain extent, the disparate theories, however interesting and worthwhile, are arguments over semantics. From a practical or layman’s point of view, the connection between attention and consciousness is like the difference between diffused light and focused light. A person might consciously turn on a flashlight to see what is in a dark place, then focus the beam of light to take a closer look at something that has caught his or her attention.


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Post 4

This post started me thinking about the peculiarities that accompany our understanding of things like perception, consciousness, and attention. My sense is that the "brain = mind" mindset that is so prevalent in scientific thinking isn’t well thought out or taken to its logical conclusions, leading to errors in our understanding. I've come to the conclusion that "brain = mind" is a silent assumption in much of the current inquiry, and is no less based on faith than the assumptions of religion, and never actually observed.

The "actual" world, as has been progressively elucidated by science, is a complex matrix of vibrations, wavelengths, and mathematical constructs, underlying matter, time, and space; from all that we somehow construct our experienced (or what we

are fond to call "real") world.

But I question, "the brain creates the world in the form that we know." According to modern physics, the solid chair I’m sitting on as I type this is almost entirely emptiness or pure space with a few flickers of "something," strings or whatever, representing the potential to become something, in this present instant, our perception, as a content of consciousness. It is only when consciousness is there that anything can be perceived at all. The well documented firing of sensory neurons and all of the other brain and nerve processes are going on within this content.

Most neuroscientists and psychologists say that the brain creates our perception of ourselves and the world out of the raw data, which we usually call matter. But wait, isn’t the brain itself part of that constructed world? Wouldn’t a neurosurgeon be able to see it, touch it, cut it, making it part of her perception? Aren’t its neurons, glial cells, fluids, and so on built up from the same vibrations of emptiness as the other components of the world? Aren’t they "empty" in the same way this chair is?

Stimulate the exposed brain in an awake patient (as has been done since Dr. Penfield did it in the late 1940s) and he experiences something as if it were happening now, or vividly relives a memory. Study living patients with diseased or damaged brains whose perceptions are bizarre—see Oliver Sacks "The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat" for amazing stories of this kind. We’re left with the same issue: These individuals have experiences that have to do with activity in their brains, to be sure, but it’s a jump in logic to say that their brains are creating the experience. Their brains, and ours, are another part of the created experience.

What is the connection between attention and consciousness as posed here? I’d prefer to leave it at "both are attributes of mMnd, and we need to know what that is to answer the question," and continue to explore the mystery.

Post 3

What about people in a coma?

My mother is a nurse and she says that even though people are in a coma, then can hear what people say and are aware of people who visit them. But when they are unconscious, how is this possible?

Do people in a coma actually listen to, experience and pay attention to things? Or are they completely unaware?

Post 2

@SteamLouis-- I don't think that doctors and scientists have a single answer for this. I'm not an expert on the topic myself but I have read about it in a class. I know that there are different theories or models out there about attention and how our brain works to achieve it.

One theory is that our brain processes everything it sees and experiences consciously and then decides what's important and focuses on that. The other theory is that the brain is selective as soon as it sees information and determines importance very early on. There are also varying ideas about how conscious of a process this is. Some scientists believe that selective attention occurs automatically, as a reflex in some cases. Whereas others believe that this is a decision that we make.

Post 1

What I'm interesting in knowing is, does our brain process and retain information even when we're not paying attention to something? Or do we have to be paying attention to it, in order to retain it in our conscious memory? Does anyone know?

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