Attention, awareness & consciousness

It’s important to consider the relationship between awareness and attention, even if the nature of this relationship is not completely understood yet. The concepts are so closely related (functionally, if not neurologically) that the distinction, though seemingly small, is immensely important.

In more scholarly forms of writing, “consciousness” seems to be the preferred variant of “awareness”. Unfortunately, while it is a somewhat less colloquial term, consciousness also has a variety of types and levels associated with it, which suggests a whole other subject area in need of disambiguation.

For our current working definitions, awareness refers to “passive” body to mind processing, attention refers to “active” mind to body processing, and consciousness refers generically to the range of an organism’s ability to process or interpret information from the world. The implication is that awareness and attention represent consciousness at different levels of scale.

Attention: Attention and consciousness | Lawrence M. Ward

Attention is closely related to consciousness. Both are integrative and yet also selective… Nonetheless, the two concepts are differentiable. Attention is usually conceptualized as the boosting of signal-to-noise ratio both through inhibition of processing of unattended stimuli [ignoring something] and through enhanced processing of attended stimuli [focusing on something]. Consciousness refers primarily to phenomenal experience itself [the state of being conscious], and secondarily to aspects of that experience such as its wholeness, its feeling of self-ownership (first-person ontogeny), the ability to report its contents verbally or in other ways, and the awareness of being conscious (metaconsciousness).

Attention and consciousness: Functional role of attention | Naotsugu Tsuchiya • Christof Koch

Complex organisms, in particular those with brains, suffer from information overload. In primates, about one million fibers leave each eye and carry on the order of one megabyte per second of raw information. One way to deal with this deluge of data is to select a small fraction of it and to process this reduced input in real-time, while the non-selected portion of the input is processed at a reduced bandwidth. In this view, attention is a mechanism that selects information of current relevance to the organism while leaving the non-selected, and thus non-attended, data to suffer from benign neglect.

Attention and consciousness: Functional role of consciousness | Naotsugu Tsuchiya • Christof Koch

Consciousness is surmised to have quite different functions from those of attention. These range from summarizing all relevant information pertaining to the current state of the organism and its environment and making this compact summary accessible to the planning stages of the brain, to detecting anomalies and errors, decision making, language, inferring the internal state of other animals, setting long-term goals, making recursive models, and rational thought.


Attention: Attention and consciousness | Lawrence M. Ward
Attention and consciousness | Naotsugu Tsuchiya • Christof Koch

Three types of consciousness | DM Armstrong