Attention and perceptual organization


How does attention contribute to perceptual experience? Within cognitive science, attention is known to contribute to the organization of sensory features into perceptual objects, or “object-based organization.” The current paper tackles a different type of organization and thus suggests a different role for attention in conscious perception. Within every perceptual experience we find that more subjectively interesting percepts stand out in the foreground, whereas less subjectively interesting percepts are relegated to the background. The sight of a sycamore often gains the visual foreground for a nature lover, whereas the sound of a violin often gains the auditory foreground for a music lover, but not necessarily vice versa. How does the perceptual system organize early sensory processing according to the subject’s interests? The current paper reveals how this subject-based organization is brought about and maintained through top-down attention. In fact, the current paper argues that top-down attention is necessary for conscious perception in so far as it is necessary for bringing about and maintaining the subject-based organization of perceptual experience.

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  1. 1.

    I focus on top-down attention because the term “attention” has come to be applied to such a wide range of phenomena and because a bottom-up distribution of resources, sometimes called “attention,” occurs in all neural processing. I thus use the more specific “top-down attention” to mean “the task-dependent direction of cognitive and neural resources by the subject.” This does not mean that the ultimate distribution of cognitive and neural resources is completely controlled by the subject, but only that this distribution has been influenced by the subject through top-down feedback.

  2. 2.

    In this paper I isolate conscious perception as a whole experience to avoid looking at it piecemeal. That is, I want to avoid arguments about whether some part of perceptual experience has benefitted from attention and focus on whether attention is necessary for the essential structural features of conscious perception.

  3. 3.

    Similar structural differences are described at length in the work of Aron Gurwitsch (1964, 1985) and in a paper by Sebastian Watzl (2011), although both authors discuss the differences in terms of consciousness, rather than conscious perception. The focus of these other works is also distinct from that of the current paper: Gurwitsch aims to characterize consciousness (“We shall establish and substantiate the thesis that every total field of consciousness consists of three domains”), whereas Watzl aims to characterize attention (“This paper defends and develops the structuring account of conscious attention”). The current paper instead argues for a dependency relation between conscious perception and attention.

  4. 4.

    Admittedly, I do not know what form of organization could account for this type of perception, the informational content of which seems merely ostensive.

  5. 5.

    That is, any interest of the subject that can be satisfied or partly satisfied through conscious perception can bring about the organization it takes to make sensory input perceptual. The subject’s interest in sleeping, for example, is not such a candidate.

  6. 6.

    This is sometimes described as a “bottom-up attention,” in contrast with the type of attention that this paper is concerned with, which is a “top-down” attention.

  7. 7.

    Note that this does not entail Representationalism, since some properties or aspects of the input may be retained despite this imposition of an organizational structure.

  8. 8.

    Thanks to Ned Block for suggesting this objection.

  9. 9.

    Thanks to Katalin Farkas for suggesting this objection.

  10. 10.

    Thanks to Dan Dahlstrom for suggesting this objection.

  11. 11.

    Thanks to John Campbell for suggesting this objection.

  12. 12.

    Thanks to Jeff Yoshimi for this objection.

  13. 13.

    Thanks to Brian McLaughlin and Christopher Hill for this objection.

  14. 14.

    Thanks to Michael Tye for suggesting this objection.

  15. 15.

    Thanks to David Chalmers for this objection.

  16. 16.

    Thanks to Hallie Liberto for this objection.

  17. 17.

    Thanks to Brian McLaughlin, Peter Graham, and Catherine Kendig for this objection.

  18. 18.

    Note that this response might also be used for certain types of sensory consciousness in humans.


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Thanks are due to a number of people who helped me to clarify my position in this paper through encouragement and criticism, but especially to John Campbell, Daniel Dahlstrom, Imogen Dickie, Katalin Farkas, Christopher Hill, Christoph Koch, Brian McLaughlin, Bence Nanay, and Eric Schwitzgebel.

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Correspondence to Carolyn Dicey Jennings.

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Jennings, C.D. Attention and perceptual organization. Philos Stud 172, 1265–1278 (2015).

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  • Attention
  • Perception
  • Siegel
  • Phenomenal contrast
  • Treisman