Attention and Awareness Aren’t The Same

Paying attention to something and being aware of it seem like the same thing -they both involve somehow knowing the thing is there. However, a new study, which will be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, finds that these are actually separate; your brain can pay attention to something without you being aware that it’s there.

“We wanted to ask, can things attract your attention even when you don’t see them at all?” says Po-Jang Hsieh, of Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School in Singapore and MIT. He co-wrote the study with Jaron T. Colas and Nancy Kanwisher of MIT. Usually, when people pay attention to something, they also become aware of it; in fact, many psychologists assume these two concepts are inextricably linked. But more evidence has suggested that’s not the case.

To test this, Hsieh and his colleagues came up with an experiment that used the phenomenon called “visual pop-out.” They set each participant up with a display that showed a different video to each eye. One eye was shown colorful, shifting patterns; all awareness went to that eye, because that’s the way the brain works. The other eye was shown a pattern of shapes that didn’t move. Most were green, but one was red. Then subjects were tested to see what part of the screen their attention had gone to. The researchers found that people’s attention went to that red shape – even though they had no idea they’d seen it at all.

In another experiment, the researchers found that if people were distracted with a demanding task, the red shape didn’t attract attention unconsciously anymore. So people need a little brain power to pay attention to something even if they aren’t aware of it, Hsieh and his colleagues concluded.

Hsieh suggests that this could have evolved as a survival mechanism. It might have been useful for an early human to be able to notice and process something unusual on the savanna without even being aware of it, for example. “We need to be able to direct attention to objects of potential interest even before we have become aware of those objects,” he says.


My manager said I was not paying attention and I told her I just didn’t see her

Consider the scenario where you are running to catch a bus that is about to depart. There is awareness of sound, sights , smell, touch of feet on the ground etc. However attention itself keeps shifting between two things. The sight of the bus and the thoughts about you missing the bus. At that time, you trip and fall down and hurt your knee and attention immediately shifts to the shooting pain in your knee. Then when you see the bus leave, attention again shifts between the sight of bus leaving and the thoughts of frustration. Also you in-between attention goes to the pain in the knee. Therefore awareness, precedes attention, precedes thought. In-fact attention is nothing but a ready state of mind focused on one sensory perception and ready to spew thoughts on that perception . When there is thought, attention is completely manifested as thought however since consciousness moves so rapidly between thought and sensory perception, it feels like there is a parallel activity of absorption in both thought and the object of thought. This is experienced when you appreciate a good piece of music. The term ‘Chitakanna’ in the vipassana tradition delves deeper into this aspect. However what is more baffling and cannot be addressed by science is the fact ‘Intention’ precedes ‘attention’ and ‘thought’ and it cannot be studied through theoretical or experiential science. It is recognized only through a an utter cessation of intention.

Wow, well said! You just simplified a complex process that many psychologists, coaches, scientists tend to confuse. I love your description of how thought is “attention completely manifested”.

APS regularly opens certain online articles for discussion on our website. Effective February 2021, you must be a logged-in APS member to post comments. By posting a comment, you agree to our Community Guidelines and the display of your profile information, including your name and affiliation. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations present in article comments are those of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of APS or the article’s author. For more information, please see our Community Guidelines.

Please login with your APS account to comment.