Attention as experience: Through 'think' and 'thin'

Journal of Consciousness Studies 17 (9-10):202-220 (2010)
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Abstract

Is our experience of the world 'rich' or 'thin'? In other words, are we aware of unattended sensory stimuli, or are the contents of our consciousness constrained by what we attend to? A recent, ingenious, attempt to address this issue offers us a seemingly unavailable, 'moderate' option; our experience is somewhere between the two. But before we make our minds up about this conclusion, we should see that it resulted from conflating two ways of construing the relevant concepts. I claim that, one way of reading 'rich' vs. 'thin', echoes the psychologists' distinction between 'early' vs. 'late' accounts of selective attention, and I argue that 'perceptual load theory', a recent response to this empirical issue, offers us a satisfying solution to our philosophical problem. Ultimately, we are only aware of what we attend to, so we can conclude that our experience of the world is philosophically 'thin'. Nonetheless, the second way of reading 'rich' vs. 'thin' relates to the range of sensory stimuli that we can be aware of. I claim that this range depends upon the attentional load that our sensory systems are placed under. The 'moderate' position, then, merely marks out one possible degree of sensory awareness on a continuum that runs from 'rich' to 'thin'.

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