Sunday 1 July 2012

James Clark: Attention: Doing and Feeling

    Abstract: Humans perceive the world in an active fashion, and process only a limited subset of the sensory data available to them. Attention selection mechanisms decide on which parts of the sensory stream to focus on. This lecture will consider two threads linking attention and consciousness. The first is the finding that the contents of consciousness (feeling) depend strongly on what is being attended to, as indicated by the "Change Blindness" phenomenon. The other thread is the connection between motor activity (doing) and attention, as espoused by Rizzolati's "Pre-Motor" Theory of Attention, and embodied consciousness theories, such as O'Regan's Sensorimotor Contingency Theory. The implications of the role of attention on consciousness for the Robotic Turing Test will be discussed.

    Rensink, R.A., O'Regan, J.K., and Clark, J.J., ``To See or Not to See: The Need for Attention to Perceive Changes in Scenes.'', Psychological Science, Vol 8, pp 368-373. 1997.
    Clark, J.J., "Spatial Attention and Latencies of Saccadic Eye Movements", Vision Research, Vol. 39, No. 3, pp 583-600, 1999
    Jie, L. and Clark, J.J., "Video Game Design Using an Eye Movement Dependent Model of Visual Attention'', ACM Transactions on Multimedia Computing, Communications, and Applications, Vol. 4, No. 3, pp 22:1-16, 2008
    Rizzolatti, G. (1983), "Mechanisms of selective attention in mammals'', in Advances in Vertebrate Neuroethology, Ewart, J.P., Capranica, R.R., and Ingle, D.J., (eds.), Plenum, New York, pp 261-297
J. K. O'Regan and A. Noe. A sensorimotor account of vision and visual consciousness. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 24:939-1031, 2001.

Comments invited


  1. James Clark talked about doing, detecting and attending, not doing *feeling* and attending.

  2. Like any other scientific construct, "attention" is a matter of empirically-based debate. The history of physics concepts like "force" show that process at work, finally settling down in thermodynamic theory circa 1900. There is no divinely ordained definition of attention.

    I have found it most useful to define "attention" as an empirical construct as "any process that results in conscious contents." Conscious contents are operationalized by accurate voluntary reports, as in the 200 plus years of the psychophysical tradition. Selective (voluntary) attention is easily operationalized as any event that allows any conscious content to emerge on voluntary demand.

    Nonvoluntary attention is a major category as well, which is harder to operationalize. For example, under conditions of habitual danger (we are hunter-gatherers after all) people will jump up out of sleep when the ship they are sailing in makes a subtle navigational change. There are many accounts of sailors waking up at night when their sailing ship encounters increased leeway, a sideways motion that caused many ships to hit obstacles and sink. Somehow that has to depend on the vestibular system of the inner ear, but interpreted very intelligently even during sleep.

    A more everyday example is parents waking up at night when their baby does NOT cry, but is expected to cry.

    The mammalian brain has been around for 200 million years, and we have all kinds of built-in attentional mechanisms that are not under voluntary control.

    The major point, however, is that it is useful to define "attention" as those brain events that enable access to specific conscious contents. (Voluntary vs. automatic eye movements are another good example).


  3. I wonder if Clark subscribes to the enactive conception of consciousness (he worked with Noe and O'Reagan after all). This theory rejects, as Susan Hurley put it out, the input-output picture: Perception is input from world to mind, and action is output from mind to world (and thought is the mediating process). If Clark supports the enactive approach, I'm not sure if the dichotomy between feeling/doing that was presented in one of his schema (doings bring forth feelings (doing -> feeling)) is compatible. Because, if I understand clearly the theory, perception (thus feeling) is a kind of action (doing). Therefore, there would be no feeling without doing, because the latter constitutes the former. In other words, the dichotomy is simply wrong.

  4. I would agree with the enactive theory, and that there would be no feeling without doing (or without planning to do, and having the capacity to do). This is not in conflict with the schemas I presented, or at least intended to present. There was no dichotomy to be implied in what I presented. As I said in the talk about the link between attention and action being two sides of the same coin, the enactive approach similarly considers doing and feeling as two sides of the same coin.


    "If " we attend of what we do" and accordingly to the upper model on the first slide, which show that we are conscious of what we attend to, what we are suppose to conclude about the syndrome de la main étrangère? "

      "Not familiar with that syndrome, can you expand? Along the same line, I can easily imagine a situation where someone acts on something that she isn't aware of, despite that she's still in a conscious state. Clark says this doesn't happen but he hasn't given us evidence to support this claim."


      Its like youre not conscious of mouvement of a part of your body, you dont have any feeling about it, you cant control those movements. So what does it tell about intention/attention and feeling?"

      "Actually, I'm surprised and a bit desapointed that the summer school doesn't have any talks on consciousness-related "alterations" as found in pathological cases such as patients with "main étrangère" syndrome or some crazy ones such as synesthesia, somatoparaphrenia, apotemnophilia, anosognosia, out-of body experiences and others (see the book of VS Ramachadran for more details​The-Tell-Tale-Brain-Neurosc​ientists-Quest/dp/​0393077829)"

  6. I agree with Pauline! it would have been very interesting to related consciousness with these altered states. I’m not sure if this relates completely to this, but it would have also been interesting to hear more about Dissociative identity disorder in relation to consciousness. Do these people have multiple consciousness’ ? (since it probably feels different to be one identity vs. another) Where would these multiple consciousness’ fit in in the evolution of consciousness ?

    Izabo Deschênes

    1. There was a poster about DID actually!

      If I remember correctly, there is a relatively simple test that allows us to see when two different identities are truly dissociated: Teach both personalities a series of different words. Test them. If they recall only words of "their personality's" list, it is a true dissociation, if they make mistakes and mix words from both lists, it is not.

      The main result of this poster was that true dissociative identity disorder was observed only in people who had had severe trauma before the age of 4 or 5.

      So, to answer the question as best I can, at least on the level of memory for things like words, there is definitely dissociation.

    2. Agreed. We spoke tons about difference between animals and humans, but not so much about differences between humans. THe results you highlight from the DID poster are interesting, in that they point to potential age factors for the within-individual development of consciousness.

    3. Thanks for the replies! It was actually that poster that made me start thinking about this, very interesting stuff!

  7. Dr. Clark stated that "we are conscious of, or feel, that which we attend to...we act only on what we attend to (or vice versa", but there were multiple examples presented during the summer school of people acting on things that they did not attend to (e.g. Dr. Haggard's experiments, Dr. Ptito's blindsight patients). I assume Dr. Clark was paraphrasing the sensorimotor model of consciousness, so is it possible to reconcile this model with these findings?

  8. Additionally, I don't think he ever explicitly defined consciousness, but from what he presented I assume his definition would be something like "consciousness is the result of the attention-action loop". Thoughts? Corrections?

  9. I was wondering if someone had ever studied the different kinds of modification in the “change-blindness paradigm”: is there any difference between a “natural” change (a change that could really occur in a very short time) and an “unnatural change”? For example, I suppose that a normal person should look for a change concerning people rather than all those details that can’t naturally change.