The phenomenology of embodied attention

  • Diego D’AngeloEmail author


This paper aims to conceptualize the phenomenology of attentional experience as ‘embodied attention.’ Current psychological research, in describing attentional experiences, tends to apply the so-called spotlight metaphor, according to which attention is characterized as the illumination of certain surrounding objects or events. In this framework, attention is not seen as involving our bodily attitudes or modifying the way we experience those objects and events. It is primarily conceived as a purely mental and volitional activity of the cognizing subject. Against this view, the phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty shows that attention is a creative activity deeply linked with bodily movements. This paper clarifies and systematizes this view and brings it into dialogue with current empirical findings as well as with current theoretical research on embodied cognition. By doing this, I spell out three main claims about embodied attention: the transcendentalism of embodiment for attention, the bodily subjectivity of attention, and the creativity of embodied attention.


Phenomenology Embodiment Enactivism Attention Merleau-Ponty 



  1. Abrams, R. A., & Weidler, B. J. (2015). Embodied attention. In J. M. Fawcett, E. F. Risko, & A. Kingstone (Eds.), The handbook of attention (pp. 301–324). Cambridge & London: The MIT Press.Google Scholar
  2. Arvidson, P. V. (2003). A lexicon of attention. From cognitive sciences to phenomenology. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 2(2), 99–132.Google Scholar
  3. Arvidson, P. V. (2006). The Sphere of Attention. Context and Margin, Dordrecht: Springer.Google Scholar
  4. Allport, D. A. (1987). Selection for action: Some behavioral and neurophysiological considerations of attention and action. In H. Heuer & H. F. Sanders (Eds.), Perspectives on perception and action (pp. 395–419). New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  5. Andrade, J. (2010). What does doodling do? Applied Cognitive Psychology, 24(1), 100–106.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Angelo, D. (2018). A Phenomenology of Creative Attention. Merleau-Ponty and Philosophy of Mind. Phänomenologische Forschungen, 2, 99–116.Google Scholar
  7. Armstrong, K. M., & Moore, T. (2007). Rapid enhancement of visual cortical response discriminability by microstimulation of the frontal eye field. Proceeding of the National Academy of Science USA, 104(22), 9499–9504.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Armstrong, K. M., Moore, T., & Fallah, M. (2003). Visuomotor origins of covert spacial attention. Neuron, 40(4), 671–683.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Breyer, T. (2011). Attentionalität und Intentionalität. Grundzüge einer phänomenologisch-kognitionswissenschaftlichen Theorie der Aufmerksamkeit. München: Fink.Google Scholar
  10. Carrasco, M. (2011). Visual attention. The past 25 years. Vision Research, 51, 1484–1525.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Cave & Bichot (1999), Visuospatial attention: Beyond a spotlight model. Psychonomy Bulletin and Review, 6(2), 204–223.Google Scholar
  12. Clark, A. (1999). Visual awareness and visuomotor action. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 6(11–12), 1–18.Google Scholar
  13. Clark, A. (2015). Surfing uncertainty: Prediction, action, and the embodied mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  14. Clark, D., Schuman, F., & Mostofsky, S. H. (2015). Mindful movement and skilled attention. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 9(297), 1–23.Google Scholar
  15. Craighero, L., & Rizzolatti, G. (2005). The premotor theory of attention. In L. Itti, G. Rees, & K. Tsotsos (Eds.), Neurobiology of attention (pp. 181–186). New York: Academic Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Depraz, N. (2014). Attention et vigilance. A la croisée de la phénoménologie et des sciences cognitives. Paris: Puf.Google Scholar
  17. Depraz, N., Varela, F., & Vermersch, P. (2003). On becoming aware. A pragmatics of experience. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Deubel, H., & Schneider, W. X. (2005). Attentional selection in sequential manual movements, movements around an obstacle and in grasping. In G. W. Humphries & J. Riddoch (Eds.), Attention in action (pp. 61–91). Hove: Psychology Press.Google Scholar
  19. Duhamel, J. R., Colby, C., & Goldberg, M. (1992). The updating of the representation of visual space in parietal cortex by intended eye movements. Science, 255(5040), 90–92.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Eilan, N. (1998). Perceptual intentionality. Attention and consciousness. Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplements, 43, 181–202.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Eilan, N. (2006). On the role of perceptual consciousness in explaining the goals and mechanisms of vision. A convergence on attention? Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume, 80(1), 67–88.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Festman, Y., Adam, J. J., Pratt, J., & Fischer, M. H. (2013). Both hand position and movement direction modulate visual attention. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 657.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Finch, L. E., Tomiyama A. J., Ward A. (2017). Taking a stand. The effects of standing desks on task performance and engagement. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 14(8).Google Scholar
  24. Gallagher, S. (2003). Bodily self-awareness and object perception. Theoria et Historia Scientiarum, 7(1), 53–68.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Gallagher, S. (2006). How the body shapes the mind. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
  26. Grosbras, M. H., Laird, A. R., & Paus, T. (2005). Cortical regions involved in eyes movements, shifts of attention, and gaze perception. Human Brain Mapping, 25(1), 140–154.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Hagler, D., Jr., Riecke, L., & Sereno, M. (2007). Parietal and superior frontal visuospatial maps activated by pointing and saccades. Neuroimage, 35(4), 1562–1577.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Hanna, R., & Maiese, M. (2009). Embodied minds in action. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  29. Hayhoe, M., & Ballard, D. (2005). Eye movements in natural behavior. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 9(4), 188–194.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Hurley, S. (1998). Consciousness in action. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  31. Husserl, E. (1982). Ideas pertaining to a pure phenomenology and to a phenomenological philosophy. First Book. Translated by F. Kersten. New York. Springer.Google Scholar
  32. Husserl, E. (2005). Wahrnehmung und Aufmerksamkeit. Texte aus dem Nachlass (1893–1912). Edited by T. Vongehr and R. Giuliani, Husserliana vol. 38. New York: Springer.Google Scholar
  33. Jacobs, H. (2016). Husserl on reason, reflection, and attention. Research in Phenomenology, 46(2), 257–276.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Jagnow, R. (2011). Ambiguous figures and spatial contents of perceptual experience. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 10, 325–346.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Jennings, C. D. (2012). The subject of attention. Synthese, 189, 535–554.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Kelley, T., Serences, J., Giesbrecht, B., & Yantis, S. (2008). Cortical mechanisms for shifting and holding visuospatial attention. Cerebral Cortex, 18(1), 114–125.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Knudsen, E. (2007). Fundamental components of attention. Annual Review of Neuroscience, 30, 57–78.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1999). Philosophy in the flesh. The embodied mind and its challenges to Western thought. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  39. Lamme, V. A. (2003). Why visual attention and awareness are different. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 7(1), 12–18.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Lind, R. (1986). The priority of attention. The Monist, 64(4), 609–619.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Mack, A., & Rock, I. (2003). Inattentional blindness. An overview. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 12(5), 180–184.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Merleau-Ponty, M. (1942). La structure du comportement. Paris: PUF.Google Scholar
  43. Merleau-Ponty, M. (1967). The structure of behavior. Boston: Beacon Press.Google Scholar
  44. Merleau-Ponty, M. (2002). Phenomenology of perception. London: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Merleau-Ponty, M. (2010). Child psychology and pedagogy: The sorbonne lectures 1949-1952. Evanston (Ill.): Northwestern University Press.Google Scholar
  46. Moore, T., & Armstrong, K. M. (2003). Selective gating of visual signals by microstimulation of frontal cortex. Nature, 421(6921), 370–373.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Nanay, B. (2010). Attention and perceptual content. Analysis, 70, 363–370.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Nanay, B. (2011). Ambiguous figures, attention, and perceptual content: Reply to Jagnow. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 10(4), 557–561.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Nanay, B. (2013). Between perception and action. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Noë, A. (2002). Is the visual world a grand illusion? Journal of Consciousness Studies, 9(5–6), 1–12.Google Scholar
  51. Noë, A. (2004). Action in perception. Cambridge: The MIT Press.Google Scholar
  52. Noë, A., Pessoa, L., & Thompson, E. (2000). Beyond the grand illusion: What change blindness really teaches us about vision. Visual Cognition, 7, 93–106.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. O'Regan, J. K., & Noë, A. (2001). A sensorimotor account of vision and visual consciousness. Behavioral and Brain Science, 24(5), 939–1031.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. O'Regan, J. K., Resink, R. A., & Clark, J. J. (1999). Change-blindness as a result of “mudsplashes”. Nature, 398, 34.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Posner, M. I. (2011). Cognitive neurosciences of attention. New York: Guildford Press.Google Scholar
  56. Pratt, J., Taylor, E. T., & Gozli, D. G. (2015). Action and attention. In J. M. Fawcett, E. F. Risko, & A. Kingstone (Eds.), The handbook of attention (pp. 325–348). Cambridge & London: The MIT Press.Google Scholar
  57. Rizzolatti, G., & Sinigaglia, C. (2008). Mirrors in the brain: How our minds share actions, emotions, and experience. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  58. Rizzolatti, G., Riggio, L., Dascola, I., & Umiltà, C. (1987). Reorienting attention across the horizontal and vertical meridians. Evidence in favor of a premotor theory of attention. Neuropsychologia, 25(1A), 31–40.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Rosenkranz, K., & Rothwell, J. C. (2004). The effect of sensory input and attention on the sensorimotor organization of the hand area of the human motor Cortes. The Journal of Physiology, 561(1), 307–320.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Siewert, C. (2005). Attention and sensorymotor intentionality. In D. W. Smith & A. L. Thomasson (Eds.), Phenomenology and philosophy of mind (pp. 270–294). Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Simons, D. J., & Chabris, C. F. (1999). Gorillas in our midst: Sustained inattentional blindness for dynamic events. Perception, 28, 1059–1074.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Steinbock, A. (2001). Interpersonal attention through exemplarity. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 8(5–7), 179–196.Google Scholar
  63. Steinbock, A. (2004). Affection and attention. On the phenomenology of becoming aware. Continental Philosophy Review, 37(1), 21–43.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Styles, E. A. (2006). Psychology of attention. New York: Psychology Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Thura, D., Hadj-Bouziane, F., Meunier, M., & Boussaoud, D. (2008). Hand position modulates saccadic activity in the frontal eye field. Behavioural Brain Research, 186(1), 148–153.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Tipper, S. P., Howard, L. A., & Houghton, G. (1998). Action-based mechanisms of attention. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 353(1373), 1385–1393.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Titchener, E. B. (1908). Lectures on the elementary psychology of feeling and attention. New York: Macmillian.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Tsuchiya, N., & van Boxtel, J. (2013). Introduction to research topic: Attention and consciousness in different senses. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 249.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Van Gaal, S., & Fahrenfort, J. J. (2008). The relationship between visual awareness, attention, and report. Journal of Neuroscience, 28(21), 5401–5402.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Varela, F., Thompson, E., & Rosch, E. (2017). The embodied mind (Revised ed.). Cambridge: The MIT Press.Google Scholar
  71. Velasques, B., Cagy, M., Piedade, R., & Ribeiro, P. (2013). Sensorimotor integration and attention: An electrophysiological analysis. In F. Signorelli & D. Circhiglia (Eds.), Functional brain mapping and the endeavor to understand the working brain InTech Online.Google Scholar
  72. Waldenfels, B. (2004). Phänomenologie der Aufmerksamkeit. Suhrkamp: Frankfurt am Main.Google Scholar
  73. Watzl, S. (2011a). The nature of attention. Philosophy Compass, 6(11), 842–853.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Watzl, S. (2011b). The philosophical significance of attention. Philosophy Compass, 6(11), 722–733.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Watzl, S. (2017). Structuring mind. The nature of attention and how it shapes consciousness. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Webb, T. W., Ingelström, K. M., Schurger, A., & Graziano, M. S. A. (2016). Cortical networks involved in visual awareness indipendent of visual attention. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States of America, 113(48), 13923–13928.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. Wehrle, M. (2013). Horizonte der Aufmerksamkeit. Entwurf einer dynamischen Konzeption der Aufmerksamkeit aus phänomenologischer und kognitionspsychologischer Sicht. München: Fink.Google Scholar
  78. Wehrle, M., & Breyer, T. (2016). Horizonal extensions of attention: A phenomenological study of the contextuality and habituality of experience. Journal of Phenomenological Psychology, 47, 41–61.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  79. Wu, W. (2011). Attention as selection for action. In C. Mole, D. Smithies, & W. Wu (Eds.), Attention: Philosophical and psychological essays (pp. 97–116). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  80. Wyart, V., & Tallon-Baudry, C. (2008). Neural dissociation between visual awareness and spatial attention. The Journal of Neuroscience, 28(10), 2667–2679.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  81. Yu, C., & Smith, L. B. (2012). Embodied attention and word learning in toddlers. Cognition, 125(2), 244–262.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  82. Yu, C., Smith, L. B., & Pereira, A. (2007). From the outside-in: Embodied attention in toddlers. In: F. Almeida e Costa, L. M. Rocha, I. Harvey, & A. Coutinho, A. (Ed.), Advances in artificial life (pp. 445–454). Berlin & Heidelberg: Springer.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institut für PhilosophieUniversität WürzburgWürzburgGermany

Personalised recommendations