The slipperiness of experience
Consciousness and attention are two of the most vexing, hard-to-define aspects of mentality. No wonder, then, that even the most brilliant and articulate theorists, such as William James, are reduced to merely gesturing at them, or to seeming platitudes (“Every one knows what attention is”). Our everyday language for describing experience seems impoverished compared to the richness and dynamic pulse of the thing itself. Thoughts and intentions, daydreams and vivid bursts of emotion, coils and snippets of language, sights, aches, and the whole of the sensory world: these conscious experiences are always simply there, like a constant buzz. Take them away and, as Descartes astutely observed, it is hard to see what would be left of our minds as we know them.
Attention, by contrast, is not merely there, but also there for us. It can be commanded, albeit sometimes unwillingly. Notice the shape of someone's hand. Now, without shifting your gaze, notice its color and the texture of their skin. Notice the web of tiny lines, the fine hairs, any nicks or scars. Focus on just one of them. We have no trouble focusing our attention in these ways. In doing so, the character of our conscious experience shifts also. Of course, attention can also be dragged away against our will, by the intrusive ping of a text message or a nagging itch. When this happens, our train of conscious thought is disrupted and the source of our distraction takes center stage. Here we chronicle some contemporary ways of modeling attention and explore the possibility that these links between attention and consciousness are no coincidence but rather evidence for a deep theoretical connection between the two. In this way, perhaps two elusive mental phenomena can be grasped at once.