Dept. of Psychology, Durham University
Roberts Building 508 (<map>)
Visual attention without consciousness in blindsight and normal observers
Introspection suggests that attending to things inevitably makes us aware of them. The notion that attention and consciousness are intimately linked has been a common assumption in Psychology since the 19th century and is still championed by many modern psychologists and philosophers. In the neurological condition blindsight patients can successfully discriminate simple visual properties of stimuli despite the fact that they insist that they are blind and, because they cannot see the stimuli, are merely guessing about them in these tasks. Fifteen years ago, by chance, I discovered that a patient with blindsight could be cued to attend to items at particular locations in a visual display, and had his performance enhanced by attention, despite remaining unaware of the stimuli to which he attended. In this special case it appeared that attending to a stimulus was not sufficient to bring in into visual consciousness. Later we obtained similar results in normal observers using visual masking techniques. These findings cause problems to those who hold that attention and consciousness are part of a single process. One response of philosophers such as Chris Mole and Jesse Prinz has been to refine the definition of attention so that the simple spatial cueing paradigm used in my early studies (and by vast numbers of cognitive psychologists over the last 35 years) falls outside the new definitions. My colleagues and I have recently published a series of experiments using an object-based attention paradigm that we argue still falls under the refined definitions of attention offered by Mole, Prinz and others and so we continue to assert that visual attention to a stimulus is not a sufficient pre-condition for visual awareness of it.
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