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Earthworms, Google servers, and an important kind of freedom

Yesterday, I sketched the priority structure framework: attention consists in the activity of regulating priority structures, which order the parts of the subject’s on-going mental life by their relative priority. Why would we organize our mind in this way? In other words, what is the function of attention?  The answer, I believe, has to do with the need for a capacity to adjust our behavior flexibly, by integrating information about changes in the world and changes in us.

I will get to this answer by first talking about an aspect of attention I largely ignored in my last post. That is the way attention itself involves agency.

On the one hand, some instances of attention seem to be paradigmatic voluntary actions. Many thinkers have noted this feature. Malebranche, for example, thought that we are free and “in a position to be worthy” only because we are masters of our attention.[1] And David Foster Wallace locates in attention “an important kind of freedom”. Attention differs from belief and desire in this regard. I cannot, just like that and without considering reasons for and against, will myself to believe that the world has been finely arranged by a powerful and loving being, or simply will myself to want to eat a lump of mud (or the salad, when the chocolate cake looks much more appealing). But I can, just like that and without considering reasons for and against, change the focus of my attention, whether visually from one word on the page to the next (or back), or intellectually and emotionally by – maybe with a bit of effort – bringing all that is good and fair to the forefront of my mind (or focus attention on the reasons why I should, actually, eat that lump of mud, or on the appealing features of the salad or the strange and unappealing shape of that cake). Indeed, such changes in the focus of attention serve as powerful ways of instilling beliefs and desires we may prefer over those we actually have.

Sebastian Watzl, Structuring Mind: The Nature of Attention and How it Shapes Consciousness (OUP, 2017)

On the other hand, attention clearly isn’t simply a type of mental action. We often attend to things against our will. Distractions are everywhere. I did not decide to shift my attention to the beeping phone in the movie theater. My intellectual attention gets drawn to the news about Trump’s latest tweet, even if I believe that it would be best to ignore it. When our minds start to wander, our attention moves on its own accord from one idea or mental image to the next: even if it makes us unhappy our attention is still occupied by what is unrelated to what we are overtly doing almost half of the time. And we know that through the right framing – or the right advertisement – something can be made so salient that it will be hard for anyone to take their attention off of it.

How could attention be both so active and so passive? It is, I argue in Structuring Mind, because attention is not a mental state like belief or desire that we are in for certain periods of time or a mental event like the forming of a decision that happens at a particular moment. The regulating of our priority structures is a process – always going on – that is shaped by different forces. Attention is something we are doing, an activity, but not something we are always controlling. When our attention is caught, captured, drifts or wanders, the performance of the activity is mostly shaped by a passive force. It is like swimming in a strong current. We are doing something, but we may not end up where we want to be. The passive force tells us about the world: what is salient in our environment or our body automatically commands our attention (in chapter 6, I argue that salience indeed consists in the perception of attention commands).  The active force interacts with this passive force and shapes our prioritizing to the degree to which we exercise executive control: how deliberation, evaluative judgment, intention, desire and choice influence our prioritizing activity. The active force springs from changes within the subject – our motivational states, in the broadest sense. In the regulating of our priority structures the passive and the active forces integrate, and together they shape how we organize our life, right now.

Some people think that the function of attention is to protect us from information overflow. Our brain powers are limited, they think, and an organism needs to protect those limited capacities. There is too much information hitting our sensory organs, and attention cuts down that information so that our brains can deal with it.

But this idea is misguided. It implies that attention would be most significant for organisms with very limited brain resources. As Gary Lupyan puts it:

If humans with their relatively large memories and sensory processing capacities are in need of attention to cope with all that information out there, then consider how much attention an earthworm would need to make sense of all that information!

But earthworms don’t have the capacity for attention. The simplest form of attention probably arises only in insects. The earthworm pays for its lack of attention with behavioral rigidity: it is bound to react in the same way to the same stimulus. Come what may, it lacks the important kind of freedom we have. By contrast, a bumble bee, because it has attention, is already more flexible: it will discriminate the color of a flower more finely if it can expect a large reward of nectar by getting it right (its motivational state), and less finely if a lurking spider is watching (a danger that is salient in its world).

Consider also what would happen if our brain powers were much larger. Suppose, for example, that not only 10 percent but 90 percent of the cortex of our brains could be active at a given time; that working memory could hold 400 instead of around four “chunks” of information. Or, to make things more extreme, suppose our minds were super-sized with access to the processing powers of all the Google servers (some think that our minds have been super-sized already). Would we then not need attention? Quite the opposite! Access to Google servers makes attention more important, not less. Information is useless, unless it is organized. If someone has large mental capacities, they need to set priorities, distinguish what is of current relevance from what can be temporarily put on the back burner. What is pushed to the side, though, often shouldn’t be closed off from the mind completely: the situation might change quickly (the spider, for example, may suddenly crawl up to the bee), and what is de-prioritized may, as in the case of Gurwitsch’s thematic fields I mentioned yesterday, be what creates and sustains the significance of what is in the focus of attention. Instead of thinking of the limited capacities of working memory (and other aspects of the mind) as a defect that we need attention to remedy, we should think of it as a feature: it is an architectural cap on how much can be of top priority in order to prevent interference effects (if you prioritize everything at once, prioritizing becomes useless).

Attention thus functions to make behavior flexible. It decouples it from the sensory situation by integrating information about the world and changes in internal needs and motivation. It does so online, at the moment, without changes to the organism’s setup or to its beliefs and desires. The fact that attention is a process shaped by both active and passive forces thus is essential to it. It is also essential that attention relates, integrates, and coordinates aspects of the mind without changing their internal character, as well as that it organizes only our current mental life and not our standing dispositions. The fact that priority structures can be used in many different ways, and that they can remain unused when we are, say, quietly meditating on an object, is part of the point of having them. Those structure organize the mind so that it can be more useful – if need be.

[1] Malebranche, Dialogues on Metaphysics and Religion, Dialogue XII, X.

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