Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences

, Volume 14, Issue 3, pp 433–454 | Cite as

Spatial attention and perception: seeing without paint

  • A. TanesiniEmail author


Covert spatial attention alters the way things look. There is strong empirical evidence showing that objects situated at attended locations are described as appearing bigger, closer, if striped, stripier than qualitatively indiscernible counterparts whose locations are unattended. These results cannot be easily explained in terms of which properties of objects are perceived. Nor do they appear to be cases of visual illusions. Ned Block has argued that these results are best accounted for by invoking what he calls ‘mental paint’. In this paper I argue, instead, in favour of an account of these phenomena in terms of the perceptual experience of affordances concerning saccadic eye movement. As part of the argument I draw connections with the empirical literature on the way in which performance efficiency also alters visual appearance.


Perception Vision Covert spatial attention Phenomenal Character Affordances Mental paint Representationism 


  1. Anton-Erxleben, K., Henrich, C., & Treue, S. (2007). ‘Attention changes perceived size of moving visual patterns.’ Journal of Vision, 7 (11), Article 5. Available from
  2. Balcetis, E., & Dunning, D. (2010). Wishful seeing. Psychological Science, 21(1), 147–52.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bennett, D. J. (2011). How the world is measured up in size experience. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 83(2), 345–65.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bhalla, M., & Proffitt, D. R. (1999). Visual-motor recalibration in geographical slant perception. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception & Performance, 25(4), 1076–96.Google Scholar
  5. Block, N. (2010). Attention and mental paint. Philosophical Issues, 20(1), 23–63.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Carrasco, M. (2011). Visual attention: the past 25 years. Vision Research, 51(13), 1484–525.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Carrasco, M., Ling, S., & Read, S. (2004). Attention alters appearance. Nature Neuroscience, 7, 308–313.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Durgin, F. H., Baird, J. A., Greenburg, M., Russell, R., Shaughnessy, K., & Waymouth, S. (2009). Who is being deceived? The experimental demands of wearing a backpack. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 16, 964–969.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Fink, P. W., Foo, P. S., & Warren, W. H. (2009). Catching fly balls in virtual reality: a critical test of the outfielder problem. Journal of Vision, 9(13), 1–8.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Firestone, C. (2013). How “paternalistic” is spatial perception? Why wearing a heavy backpack doesn’t—and couldn’t—make hills look steeper. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 8(4), 455–73.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Fish, W. (2010). Philosophy of perception: A contemporary introduction, routledge contemporary introductions to philosophy. London and New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  12. Fuller, S., & Carrasco, M. (2006). Exogenous attention and color perception: performance and appearance of saturation and hue. Vision Research, 46, 4032–47.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Gibson, J. J. (1986). The ecological approach to visual perception. Hillsdale, N.J. and London: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  14. Gobell, J., & Carrasco, M. (2005). Attention alters the appearance of spatial frequency and gap size. Psychological Science, 16, 644–51.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Harman, G. (1990). The intrinsic quality of experience. Philosophical Perspectives, 4, 31–52.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Hoffman, J. E., & Subramaniam, B. (1995). The role of visual-attention in saccadic eye-movements. Perception & Psychophysics, 57(6), 787–795.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Horowitz, T., Fine, E., Fencsik, D., Yurgenson, S., & Wolfe, J. (2007a). Fixational eye movements are not an index of covert attention. Psychological Science, 18(4), 356–63.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Horowitz, T., Fencsik, D., Fine, E., Yurgenson, S., & Wolfe, J. (2007b). Microsaccades and attention: does a weak correlation make an index? Reply to Laubrock, Engbert, Rolfs, and Kliegl (2007). Psychological Science, 18(4), 367–68.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Laubrock, J., Engbert, R., Rolfs, M., & Kliegl, R. (2007). Microsaccades are an index of covert attention: commentary on Horowitz, Fine, Fencsik, Yurgenson, and Wolfe (2007). Psychological Science, 18(4), 364–66.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Liu, T., Fuller, S., & Carrasco, M. (2006). Attention alters the appearance of motion coherence. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 13, 1091–96.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Liu, T., Abrams, J., & Carrasco, M. (2009). Voluntary attention enhances contrast appearance. Psychological Science, 20, 354–362.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Loomis, J. M., & Philbeck, J. W. (2008). Measuring perception with spatial updating and action. In R. L. Klatzky, M. Behrmann, & B. MacWhinney (Eds.), Embodiment, ego-space, and action (pp. 1–42). New York: Psychology Press.Google Scholar
  23. Milner, A. D., & Goodale, M. A. (2006). The visual brain in action (2nd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Montagna, B., & Carrasco, M. (2006). ‘Transient covert attention and the perceived rate of flicker’. Journal of Vision, 6(9), Article 8. Available from
  25. Nanay, B. (2011). Do we see apples as edible? Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 92(3), 305–22.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Nanay, B. (2012). Action-oriented perception. European Journal of Philosophy, 20(3), 430–46.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Noë, A. (2004). Action in perception. Cambridge: The MIT Press.Google Scholar
  28. O’Shaughnessy, B. (1980). The will (Vol. 2). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  29. Porritt, A. (1987). Ghost-writer to W.G. Grace. In M. Davie & S. Davie (Eds.), The faber book of cricket (pp. 119–122). London: Faber and Faber.Google Scholar
  30. Prinzmetal, W., Nwachuku, I., Bodanski, L., Blumenfeld, L., & Shimizu, N. (1997). The phenomenology of attention 2. Brightness and contrast. Consciousness and Cognition, 6(2/3), 372–412.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Proffitt, D. R. (2008). An action-specific approach to spatial perception. In R. L. Klatzky, B. MacWhinney, & M. Behrmann (Eds.), Embodiment, ego-space, and action (pp. 179–202). New York: Psychology Press.Google Scholar
  32. Proffitt, D. R. (2013). An embodied approach to perception: by what units are visual perceptions scaled? Perspectives on Psychological Science, 8(4), 474–83.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Proffitt, D. R., & Linkenauger, S. A. (2013). Perception viewed as a phenotypic expression. In W. Prinz, M. Beisert, & A. Herwig (Eds.), Action science: Foundations of an emerging discipline (pp. 171–98). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Proffitt, D. R., Bhalla, M., Gossweiler, R., & Midgett, J. (1995). Perceiving geographical slant. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 2(4), 409–28.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Proffitt, D. R., Stefanucci, J., Banton, T., & Epstein, W. (2003). The role of effort in perceiving distance. Psychological Science, 14(2), 106–12.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Prosser, S. (2011). Affordances and phenomenal character in spatial perception. Philosophical Review, 120(4), 475–513.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Rizzolatti, G., & Craighero, L. (1998). Spatial attention: Mechanisms and theories. In M. Sabourin, F. Craik, & M. Robert (Eds.), Advances in psychological science, Vol. 2: Biological and cognitive aspects (pp. 171–98). Hove: Psychology Press/Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  38. Rizzolatti, G., Riggio, L., Dascola, I., & Umiltá, C. (1987). Reorienting Attention across the Horizontal and Vertical Meridians: Evidence in Favor of a Premotor Theory of Attention. Neuropsychologia, 25(1, Part 1), 31–40.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Rolfs, M., & Carrasco, M. (2012). Rapid simultaneous enhancement of visual sensitivity and perceived contrast during saccade preparation. The Journal of Neuroscience, 32(40), 13744–52.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Rowlands, M. (2006). Body language: Representation in action. Cambridge and London: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  41. Siegel, S. (2010). The contents of visual experience. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  42. Smith, D. T., & Schenk, T. (2012). The premotor theory of attention: time to move on? Neuropsychologia, 50(6), 1104–14.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Stokes, D. (2013). Cognitive penetrability of perception. Philosophy Compass, 8(7), 646–63.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Styles, E. A. (2006). The psychology of attention. Hove: Psychology Press.Google Scholar
  45. Tse, P. U. (2005). Voluntary attention modulates the brightness of overlapping transparent surfaces. Vision Research, 45, 1095–1098.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Turatto, M., Vescovi, M., & Valsecchi, M. (2007). Attention makes moving objects be perceived to move faster. Vision Research, 47, 166–78.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Witt, J. K., & Proffitt, D. R. (2005). See the ball, hit the ball. Psychological Science, 16, 937–938.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Witt, J. K., & Proffitt, D. R. (2008). Action-specific influences on distance perception: a role for motor simulation. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception & Performance, 34(6), 1479–92.Google Scholar
  49. Witt, J. K., Proffitt, D. R., & Epstein, W. (2005). Tool use affects perceived distance, but only when you intend to use it. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception & Performance, 31, 880–888.Google Scholar
  50. Woods, A. J., Philbeck, J. W., & Danoff, J. V. (2009). The various perceptions of distance: an alternative view of how effort affects distance judgments. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception & Performance, 35(4), 1104–17.Google Scholar
  51. Wraga, M. (1999). The role of eye height in perceiving affordances and object dimensions. Perception & Psychophysics, 61(3), 490–507.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Philosophy, Cardiff UniversityCardiffUK

Personalised recommendations