Attending to the Stream of Consciousness – A Methodological Challenge

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Attention is usually conceptualized, and empirically approached, as a matter of selection, information reduction, and performance enhancement. In this context, a wealth of experimental approaches have been developed to study sustained attention, selective attention, orienting, divided attention, conflict resolution, and so on. However, much less importance has been traditionally accorded to a more intimate yet pervasive aspect of attention: how it continuously shifts and moves within the stream of consciousness — the ongoing flow of perceptions, thoughts, images, and feelings we all experience during any normal day. In this chapter we survey some of the traditional ways in which attention is experimentally studied while pointing out some limitations and potential interests these approaches have for the study of attention in the stream of consciousness. We highlight, based on a phenomenological approach to its dynamics, one crucial aspect of attention that has been systematically neglected, and that could have important consequences for its study. Taking into account the spontaneous nature of attentional shifts during the stream of consciousness leads us to consider recent developments in brain imaging, experimental psychology, and signal analysis that are beginning to establish a framework for the scientific study of this elusive phenomenon.