Can we be aware without actually paying attention? In other words, can our brains somehow imbibe visual information from the outside world without any conscious effort on our part? It would certainly be nice if that were the case.
As it happens, the necessity of visual attention for visual awareness is a steady debate in the study of consciousness. The can-we-or-can’t-we camps have gone back and forth for over a decade. I’d love to be in the “we can” group—it would make my life a whole lot easier—but unfortunately for me (and for those who’ve long argued for the possibility of awareness without attention), it now seems like the central piece of evidence for that viewpoint is being put into question.
Do we need to pay attention to perceive natural scenes?
Up to now, it has been generally accepted that natural scenes don’t suffer in the same way as other objects from so-called inattentional blindness, whereby if you only focus on one element in a scene, the other elements disappear (perhaps the most famous example of the phenomenon is the invisible gorilla). But a recent series of studies casts doubt on that assertion, suggesting that even such scenes require us to actively pay attention: if we are busy doing something else, we will remain largely unaware of the details and may even fail to realize we’ve seen something to begin with.
In one study, researchers used a multiple-object tracking task that forced participants to keep their eyes on a series of discs as they moved across a changing checkerboard, while in another, they asked their subjects to pay attention to a stream of letter and digits—presented against the same checkerboard background—and count how many times a given digit appeared. In both experiments, a visual scene (beach, building, highway, indoor, and mountain in the first task and animals or vehicles in the second) would flash on the screen during the fifth trial, and participants would then be asked to answer some basic questions about the scene.
What happened next counteracts the results of many a prior experiment: in the first case, fully 64% of participants experienced full inattentional blindness and only 18% detected the visual scene immediately—as compared to 96% in a condition where the task was reversed, so that observing the background became the main goal. In the second case—an easier task—50% experienced full inattentional blindness and only 23% could identify the category of the scene right away, in contrast to the 93% who could accurately do so in the reverse condition.
Attention is necessary for awareness—and it is a limited resource
It thus seems that we can’t actually be aware unless we pay attention. True, natural scene awareness is perhaps one of the most automatic and streamlined processes in visual perception—hence the prior results that suggested it might be possible without attention—but if our attention is truly taxed, in a more difficult task than has traditionally been used, we lose even that rapid and basic ability. Yes, awareness may require only minimal attention; but it does require some attention. Nothing happens quite automatically. As the authors put it, “Although there is good reason to believe in attention without awareness, there is no evidence of awareness without attention.” It’s just not that simple. We can be paying attention even though we’re not completely aware of doing so—but we can’t be aware of something if we’re not paying attention to it.
As we multitask more and more and have ever-increasing demands on our attentional streams, such research is increasingly pertinent. For, it goes to the heart of a crucial notion: the limited nature of attention. We only have so much to spare, and each additional element requires some part of a very finite resource. Each new piece comes at a cost.
When it comes right down to it, there is no such thing as free attention; it all has to come from somewhere. And every time we place an additional demand on our attentional resources—be it by tracking discs or checking our email or following five media streams at once—we limit the awareness that surrounds any one aspect and our ability to deal with it in an engaged, mindful, and productive manner.
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