The Interactions between Attention and Perception

The Interactions between Attention and Perception
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The Interactions between Attention and Perception
People derive a significant quantity of information by perceiving the actions of others as
well as their own, which is important for social interaction. Vision scientists have developed
methods like signal detection theory (SDT), single- and double-threshold theories, and
accumulator models of visual perception to explain how humans make perceptual decisions
(Halligan, Fink, Marshall, & Vallar, 2003). Despite the success that these theories had in
describing and predicting human behavior, they were silent on the question of the subjective
aspect of perception. Attention and perception are both important to the understanding of
phenomena, though they might operate separately or concurrently depending on the situation.
Despite the long-lasting reluctance to study subjective perception, the field has seen a
considerable change of direction in the last decades. The emergence of cognitive psychology
introduced the notion that in order to understand people, one needs to focus on the mind and not
only the outward behavior (Halligan et al., 2003). This view led to an increasing acceptance that
in addition to performance measures, subjective aspects of perception should also receive the
attention of scientists. Early views on subjective perception equated it with attention. This idea
has been pervasive among both psychologists and philosophers. Proponents of this view point
out that withholding attention often results in a stimuli failing to enter consciousness, as
demonstrated by the phenomena of change and in-attentional blindness. Change blindness refers
to the inability to detect changes that happen in portions of the visual field that one is not
attending (Halligan et al., 2003). A large number of studies have demonstrated this effect using a
variety of methods. For example, Lavie (1995) showed that large changes to a visual stimulus
were not detected if they were introduced during saccades. Other studies have used the flicker
and the gradual change techniques. In the former method, two images flash one after the other,
with a brief blank screen between them. In the gradual change method, the image stays on the
screen but a small change is introduced gradually so that it does not draw attention. Surprising
demonstrations of the effect have been carried out in real-world settings in which subjects often
failed to notice that a partner is substituted with a different person.
Change and intentional blindness were seen as impressive demonstrations of the intimate
relationship between attention and subjective aspects of perception. Some early examples of this
came through the discovery of two extreme clinical conditions. The first of these is named
“blindsight” and became a subject of interest among vision researchers. Blindsight patients
typically have focal damage on their primary visual cortex V1, which makes them blind in the
corresponding part of the visual field (Cowey & Stoerig, 1991). However, it was found that these
patients were still able to successfully discriminate and respond to stimuli in their blind field of
view at a rate significantly better than expected (Cowey & Stoerig, 1991). The disorder quickly
became controversial due to the relatively small number of patients with the condition. However,
subsequent studies using functional neuroimaging, lesions in the monkey primary visual cortex,
and transcranial magnetic stimulation have provided extensive support to the claim that lesions
in the primary visual cortex lead to dissociations between objective and subjective components
of perception (Cowey & Stoerig, 1991). The second disorder to highlight subjective experience
as a legitimate object of scientific inquiry is essentially the opposite of blindsight. The condition
is named “Anton’s blindness” or the “Anton–Babinski syndrome,” and describes cases of people
who claim to see even when objective tests confirm that they are blind (Cowey & Stoerig, 1991).
This disorder is again caused by lesions to the visual cortex. Some theories suggest that the
condition emerges when sensory areas become disconnected from language areas.
The discovery of these clinical conditions brought about a wider acceptance of the idea
that objective and subjective perception can dissociate. One of the results of this acceptance was
a re-thinking of the relationship between attention and subjective perception. Several researchers
argue that attention and consciousness are separate processes that can be dissociated and are
supported by different neural mechanisms. Koch and Tsuchiya (2006), proposed a formal
approach to distinguishing between attention and consciousness. The researchers claimed that a
double dissociation exists between the two. Besides, there are processes that require both, neither
or just one of them. Firstly, in relation to processes that require both consciousness and attention,
Koch and Tsuchiya (2006) gave the example of phenomena like working memory and detection
of unexpected as well as unfamiliar stimuli. In general, full reportability is only possible when
both processes are involved. Secondly, at the opposite end of the spectrum, there are automatic
behaviors that do not require or benefit from either attention or consciousness. The lack of
necessity for consciousness in such automatic conducts, like walking or driving a car, has been
the reason why they are commonly referred to as “zombie behaviors” (Koch and Tsuchiya,
2006). Further examples of processes that do not require either attention or consciousness are the
stimuli that are presented too briefly to be attended, and the formation of afterimages. Therefore,
attention and consciousness can operate differently and sometimes come automatically.
Several processes exist that require attention but could operate in the absence of
consciousness. One such process is priming the facilitation of a stimulus due to exposure to a
previous stimulus which has been shown to require temporal attention but can proceed below
the conscious threshold. Another study to demonstrate a similar effect was conducted by Jiang,
Costello, Fang, Huang, and He, (2006). The researchers presented intact erotic pictures on one
side of the visual field and scrambled pictures on the other. The presentation of the pictures was
masked by continuous flash suppression so that subjects were not better than chance at
identifying which pictures were intact and which ones were scrambled. However, the observers
were better at discriminating the orientation of a Gabor patch presented at the location of the
intact compared to the scrambled pictures. The latter suggests that attention was drawn to the
location of the intact erotic pictures without conscious awareness.
Over and above, some processes require consciousness but not attention. Koch and
Tsuchiya (2006) found support for this claim in the perception of the gist. It is well known that
humans extract the gist of a picture, time that is insufficient for the deployment of top-down
attention. Therefore, Koch and Tsuchiya (2006) argued that consciousness, but not attention, is
needed to perceive the gist of a scene. A competing taxonomy was presented by Dehaene,
Changeux, Naccache, Sackur, and Sergent (2006). The authors argued that one can distinguish
between strong and weak bottom-up stimulus strength as well as whether attentional
amplification is present or absent. They based their theory on the widely-used global workspace
hypothesis. In its simplest form, the theory states that consciousness arises when a fronto-parietal
workspace network becomes activated. The workspace neurons have long-distance connections,
thus enabling them to broadcast information to many distant areas. In order for the workspace
activation to be sufficient for consciousness, it needs to be synchronized. Distant areas ought to
be oscillating at the same frequency in order to communicate. Besides, they need to be reciprocal
as fronto-parietal regions ought to be able to influence or be influenced by visual areas. Apart
from that, they must be long-lasting since the activation pattern ought to continue for sufficient
time to reach a stable state. The three aspects enhance the connection between attention and
All in all, complex phenomenon, standard models such as signal detection theory (SDT),
treat perception as a decision process of active inference, and the brain must decide what the
noisy signals represent. SDT proposes that such resolutions are made based on decision criteria
that can be conservative or liberal. For example, if a decision criterion in detection (or,
“detection criterion”) is conservative, a very high activation will be needed to cross the criterion
and produce a positive response. On the other hand, if the detection criterion is liberal, a much
lower activation can produce a positive response. Therefore, the detection criterion is of utmost
importance to the final outcome of a detection task. Phenomena such as change and in-
attentional blindness have further demonstrated observers' tendency to miss very noticeable
events when they do not attend to them.
Cowey A & Stoerig P (1991). The neurobiology of blindsight. Trends in Neurosciences, 14,
Dehaene, S., Changeux, J.P., Naccache, L., Sackur, J., & Sergent, C. (2006). Conscious,
preconscious, and subliminal processing: a testable taxonomy. Trends in Cognitive
Sciences, 10(5), 204-211
Halligan, P. W., Fink, G. R., Marshall, J. C., & Vallar, G. (2003). Spatial cognition: Evidence
from visual neglect. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 7, 125-133.
Jiang, Y., Costello, P., Fang, F., Huang, M., & He, S. (2006). A gender- and sexual orientation-
dependent spatial attentional effect of invisible images. Proceedings of the National
Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 103(45), 17048-17052.
Koch, C., & Tsuchiya, N. (2006). Attention and consciousness: Two distinct brain processes.
Trends in cognitive sciences, 11(1), 16-22.
Lavie, N. (1995). Perceptual load as a necessary condition for selective attention. Journal of
Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 21(3), 451-468.

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