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Durham University


Attention and Awareness

What is the relationship between visual attention and visual awareness? Intuitively attention and awareness feel closely related – what we see most clearly seems to be what we attend to. This was certainly the dominant view in academic Psychology from the 19th century and has persisted, at least in some quarters, to the present day. This assumption is, however, open to empirical test. Some phenomena seem to support the classical notion that attention and awareness are two sides of the same process. Our inability to detect changes in scenes when the change itself does not attract attention, change-blindness, has been claimed to imply that we are only aware of attended items in the visual scene. In the neurological condition neglect patients are impaired at moving their attention into half of visual space and often behave as if they are unaware of stimuli on that side of space. We have, however, shown that attention can be directed towards stimuli that are unseen (either because of neurological conditions or by using masking techniques in normal participants) and that attention has a behaviour consequence yet the stimuli remain unseen. Attending to a stimulus does not inevitably lead to awareness of the stimulus. There are many aspects to attention: how it is controlled, how it selects some aspects of the scene over others, how it interacts with motor control and how its consequences affect tasks undertaken by the subject. We continue to conduct studies exploring how these various facts influence the relationship between attention and awareness and to understand how dissociations between attention and awareness impact practical issues such as neurological rehabilitation strategies.