Conscious and Unconscious Processes in Attention
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Conscious and Unconscious Processes in Attention. Vaughan Bell Outline. Attention and Consciousness Cognitive models of attention Bottleneck Models Capacity / Resource Models Neuropsychological models of attention Spatial Attention and Neglect

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Conscious and Unconscious Processes in Attention

Vaughan Bell

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  • Attention and Consciousness

  • Cognitive models of attention

    • Bottleneck Models

    • Capacity / Resource Models

  • Neuropsychological models of attention

    • Spatial Attention and Neglect

    • Attention to Action and the Dysexecutive Syndrome

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Attention and Consciousness

  • “Paying attention to something” typically refers to one of two things:

    • Being selective about what we concentrate on

    • The notion that we can attend to a limited amount of things at once.

  • This suggests we can make things more or less conscious by focusing on them, or ignoring them.

  • It could be described as focusing our information processing resources on certain stimuli or actions.

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Attention and Consciousness

  • It is now becoming clear that we also need to know about how and how much of the ‘ignored’ information we process.

  • Data informing our theories of attention have come from two main areas:

    • Cognitive models of attention from studies on healthy participants

    • Neuropsychological models of attention from studies on brain injured patients

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Bottleneck Models

  • Selective attention tasks have been crucial in driving the development of bottleneck models.

  • It involves the focusing on one task to the exclusion of irrelevant stimuli.

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Cocktail Party Effect

  • Allows us to pick out a single conversation among a number of others.

  • Cherry (1953) simulated this by playing two streams of speech, one to each ear.

  • Participants were asked to repeat the speech in one ear, and then were asked about the other.

  • He showed that people might know whether the other voice was male or female.

  • But might not know what was said, or what language the speaker was talking in.

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Broadbent’s Filter Model

  • Donald Broadbent (1958) proposed a filter model of attention to account for these findings.

  • He argued that we filter out sensory information before it reaches short term memory.

  • And that this filtering is based on the physical characteristics of the stimuli.

  • Rather than any semantic content.

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Broadbent’s Filter Model

  • In this model, meaning is only processed when we become conscious of the stimuli.

  • i.e. after is has got through the filter.

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  • e.g. Von Wright et al (1975) paired certain words with electric shocks.

  • Because of conditioning, the words caused a fear response on their own, measurable by GSR.

  • Using Cherry’s technique, Von Wright found conditioned words in the ignored ear still produced GSR response, even without awareness.

  • Showing that some meaning must be processed before awareness, and that Broadbent’s model cannot be entirely correct.

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Treisman’s Attenuator Model

  • e.g. Treisman’s (1964) alternative argued that instead of a strict filter, processing was attenuated (reduced) for the unattended stimuli.

  • Therefore, some processing of meaning could take place, albeit in a much reduced fashion.

  • Accounting for why conditioned words could still cause a fear response when ‘ignored’.

  • But full sentences could not be understood.

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Treisman’s Attenuator Model

  • In this model, some analysis of meaning can take place, although it is attenuated.

  • Even if we are not aware of it in full.

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Late Selection Models

  • The last two are known as ‘early selection models’ because information is selected before it reaches awareness and short term memory.

  • Deutsch and Deutsch (1963) have argued for a ‘late selection model’.

  • This is where all information reaches short term memory, but the selection happens at that point.

  • Supported by experiments that have shown quite sophisticated semantic analysis can happen with unattended stimuli.

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Capacity or Resource Models

  • These argue that we only have so many attentional resources that we can use at once.

  • When we have ‘run out’ we start missing stimuli or making errors on tasks.

  • Studies have examined the process of carrying out two (or more) tasks at once.

  • This is known as divided attention and these tasks have been important in driving capacity theories.

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Capacity or Resource Models

  • They may seem similar to bottleneck models but have a crucial difference.

  • Bottleneck models argue for serial processing in streams.

  • Switching tasks involves focusing a single serial stream to another task.

  • Capacity models argue that we can process several tasks in parallel, but each more slowly because of the additional information to deal with.

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Application: Psychopathy

  • Psychopathy is a forensic diagnosis given to people who:

    • Commit persistently anti-social acts

    • Without feelings or remorse, empathy, guilt or responsibility

    • Despite having normal IQ, good reasoning abilities and low levels of neurosis and anxiety.

  • Studies suggest that some psychopaths have trouble with selective attention.

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Application: Psychopathy

  • Perhaps with over-focused attention:

  • “I always know damn well I shouldn't do these things … it's just that when the time comes I don't think of anything else. I don't think of anything but what I want now”

  • Hiatt et al (2004) used various versions of the Stroop Task to test selective attention.

  • The Stroop Task involves ignoring an automatically processed stimulus to name a conflicting attribute.

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Stroop Task I














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Stroop Task II














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Hiatt et al (2004)

  • People tend to be significantly slower with the second version because of the conflict.

  • They found that psychopathic offenders showed a normal effect for the standard Stroop task.

  • But showed much less of an effect than controls (i.e. were quicker) when the components were spatially separated. e.g:


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Hiatt et al (2004)

  • In other words, they may have differences in attentional filtering or attenuating, particularly involving context.

  • e.g: anti-social acts may seem like the most direct solution to a particular problem

  • And other contextual concerns (e.g. pain caused to the victim or consequences) may be less consciously available as a result.

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Neuropsychological Models

  • Largely derived from studies of people with brain injury who no longer seem to be able to do certain attentional tasks.

  • Such as orienting, focusing, multi-tasking and so on.

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  • Hemi-spatial neglect is one such disorder which particularly occurs after right parietal damage.

  • [ Sacks excerpt, p73 ]

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Spatial Attention

  • This suggests we have attention for particular parts of space.

  • If the part of the brain is damaged which represents this, we can lose the ability to represent it both perceptually and conceptually.

  • It can be thought of as being consciously inaccessible.

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Posner Cueing Paradigm

  • Posner (1980) has argued that we can demonstrate the orienting of spatial attention independent of eye movements.

  • In other words, a demonstration of covert attention.

  • [Posner demo]

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Posner Cueing Paradigm

  • Falsely cued trials (where the box appears on the other side from the X) produce longer responses.

  • Even though we have been told to ignore the box.

  • This suggests are attention is being unconsciously drawn to a part of space…

  • …and we have to disengage to respond appropriately.

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Covert Attention

  • This covert or unconscious attention to a part of space may be damaged in neglect.

  • Making patients with neglect unaware that they cannot represent parts of space.

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Attention to Action

  • As actions become more practised they tend to become more automatic and less conscious.

  • e.g. driving, typing etc

  • However, at times we need to be able to exercise precise or conscious control over normally automatic actions.

  • Among others, Norman and Shallice (1980) have argued for an executive system that manages other cognitive processes and actions.

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Dysexecutive Syndrome

  • This is thought to break down quite dramatically after certain sorts of brain injury. e.g:

  • Utilisation behaviour is where people are unable to inhibit actions triggered by their environment.

  • e.g. being unable to not drink hot coffee if it’s place in front of them.

  • Akinetic mutism where people can’t initiate self-willed action, although they can act reactively.

  • Or general planning and action organisation problems.

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Norman and Shallice’s Model

  • Norman and Shallice (1980) model of the executive system attempts to account for both actions becoming automatic…

  • …and conscious control where necessary.

  • It is based on two pivotal components:

    • Contention Scheduling

    • Supervisory Attentional System

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Norman and Shallice (1980)

  • Contention scheduler:

    • Mediates the effect of environmental triggers.

    • To select appropriate actions or ‘action scripts’ called schemas.

    • Uses mutual inhibition.

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Norman and Shallice (1980)

  • Supervisory Attentional System:

    • Intervenes in non-routine situations.

    • When actions have to be altered, initiated or inhibited during non-routine situations.

    • Much more of a conscious process.

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Norman and Shallice (1980)












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Norman and Shallice (1980)

  • This system provides a theoretical basis for the executive system.

  • And accounts for dysexecutive behaviour. e.g.

  • Utilisation behaviour is a failure in the SAS, so irrelevant routine actions are not inhibited.

  • Akinetic mutism is a failure of the contention scheduler to initiate schemas to triggers.

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Application: Role in Schizophrenia

  • Executive dysfunction has been cited as one of the core deficits in schizophrenia (Chan et al. 2004)

  • And one of the key predictors of outcome in terms of work and the activities of daily living (Velligan et al, 2000).

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  • Different theories of attention have been developed from observations of healthy and impaired people.

  • Although these are largely complementary.

  • All theories reflect the idea that we have a limited ability to focus our information processing abilities on certain tasks.

  • And make them more or less conscious.

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  • Cognitive theories

    • Bottleneck models (Broadbent, Treisman, late selection theories)

    • Capacity theories

  • Neuropsychological theories

    • Spatial attention

    • Executive system