“What we know about ourselves is in continual dialogue with darkness. Self-knowledge and ignorance are linked because of the selective structure of the human mind. In focusing attention on one thing we ignore another.”  (Sam Keen & Anne Valley-Fox, 1989)

“Art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos. A stillness which characterizes prayer, too, and the eye of the storm—an  arrest of attention in the midst of distraction.” (Saul Bellow quoted by George Plimpton 1967). Such stillness is a precious “momentary stay against confusion,” as Robert Frost called it.

HOW do ARTISTS CONTROL YOUR ATTENTION?  An empirical or intuitively derived understanding of how to channel the attention of your audience is the key.  For example, read about “sensory exploitation” and then read about Turner’s smudge.  POETS: We must call attention to specific words  we must make them special, in Ellen Dissanyake’s terms –we do not want them heard or perceived in a familiar, habitual or automatized path, (the “lethargy of custom,” as Coleridge put it)  but in a way that it will evoke connections with other words that enlarge the meanings of all.


We can imagine ourselves swimming through a sea of stimuli, much of which is imperceptible because we do not possess receptors that are sensitive to them  Of course we work mightily whenever we can to extend our senses– prostheses such as magnifying glasses or telescopes or more recently electronic devices that enable vast extensions of our hearing, seeing, smelling, etc.  BUT even amongst those things that are within human range, we only pay attention to a fraction of them. 

PAY ATTENTION! I heard this almost daily in grade school … I don’t think the collateral results of my neglect of this commandment have been all that bad.   Well, of course, like all “rules” & guidelines there is an optimal effect in which deficits or excesses are maladaptive–in fact, unexpected on my first readings of literature on attentive processes in perception and conception formation, the “imperfections” of perception may enable creativity!   READ: the A&O READING on ATTENTION & PERCEPTION by Macknik & Martinez-Conde (2020)


Attention is the behavioral and cognitive process of selectively concentrating on a discrete aspect of information, whether considered subjective or objective, while ignoring other perceivable information. William James (1890) wrote that “Attention is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. Focalization, concentration, of consciousness are of its essence.”[1] Attention has also been described as the allocation of limited cognitive processing resources.[2] Attention is manifested by an attentional bottleneck, in term of the amount of data the brain can process each second; for example, in human vision, only less than 1% of the visual input data (at around one megabyte per second) can enter the bottleneck,[3][4] leading to inattentional blindness.[5] 


Attention remains a crucial area of investigation within educationpsychologyneurosciencecognitive neuroscience, and neuropsychology. Areas of active investigation involve determining the source of the sensory cues and signals that generate attention, the effects of these sensory cues and signals on the tuning properties of sensory neurons, and the relationship between attention and other behavioral and cognitive processes, which may include working memory and psychological vigilance. A relatively new body of research, which expands upon earlier research within psychopathology, is investigating the diagnostic symptoms associated with traumatic brain injury and its effects on attention. Attention also varies across cultures.[6] 

The relationships between attention and consciousness are complex enough that they have warranted perennial philosophical exploration. Such exploration is both ancient and continually relevant, as it can have effects in fields ranging from mental health and the study of disorders of consciousness to artificial intelligence and its domains of research.”        

         Wikipedia (19 July 2022)


The nature of attention

(from Taylor (2003)[i]

 “Attention is most often defined, for example in the visual modality, as the process of selection of a part of a visual scene for further more careful inspection; it involves the partial or complete exclusion of the rest of the scene. Unattended inputs fail to reach awareness, as shown by experiments in which a subject is completely unaware of the sudden appearance of an object at an unattended point (Mack and Rock, 1998; Rensink et al., 1997). In a very similar way, attention can also be paid to inputs in other modalities or to actions. 

A number of the features of attention are not new; the study of attention has a long history. It was already noted by Aristotle that ‘Of two movements, the stronger always tends to extrude the latter’. That attention can be directed was also known in antiquity. Thus, Lucretius wrote, in the first century b.c., that one can possess ‘attentive ears and minds’. The division of attention into that directed voluntarily or externally was also known early. The automatic ‘tug of attention’, as compared to its willed direction, was noted by St. Augustine in about 400 a.d. and discussed later by Rene Descartes. Many remarked that attention enhances sensory sensitivity (Lucretius, Descartes and Bonnet), and the ability to move attention covertly was also commented on by Aristotle as well as being studied later by Bonnet.  Again Aristotle pointed out that attention was basic to unifying consciousness. More recently William James was much concerned with attention. However, a hiatus arose in analysis of inner experience brought about by the failure of introspection studies and later by behaviorism. Only in the latter part of the previous century has attention come back, not only to being recognized as crucial to consciousness but also in its own right deserving of more detailed study as a crucial component in information processing in the brain. 

Its introduction into artificial software ‘agents’, for example, is now being seriously attempted (Taylor and Kasderides, 2003). The mode of action of attention in the brain is now realized as through relative amplification of the neural activity for the attended input and the concomitant inhibition of distracting elements in the visual (or other sensory) neural representations in early cortical sites. Such modulations have been observed at single cell level (Reynolds et al., 1999; McAdams and Maunsell, 1999), at multi-unit level (Mehta et al., 2000), and at multi-modular level by brain imaging (Buechel and Friston, 1997). They occur in various parts of the cortex, both in posterior visual sites and in parietal and frontal sites.”



[i] Paying Attention to Consciousness by John G. Taylor in Progress in Neurobiology 71 (2003) 305–335