Attention and awareness aren't the same

June 6, 2011, Association for Psychological Science

Paying attention to something and being aware of it seems 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 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 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 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.

Explore further: Is fear deficit a harbinger of future psychopaths?

Related Stories

Is fear deficit a harbinger of future psychopaths?

May 19, 2011
Psychopaths are charming, but they often get themselves and others in big trouble; their willingness to break social norms and lack of remorse means they are often at risk for crimes and other irresponsible behaviors.

Recommended for you

Intensive behavior therapy no better than conventional support in treating teenagers with antisocial behavior

January 19, 2018
Research led by UCL has found that intensive and costly multisystemic therapy is no better than conventional therapy in treating teenagers with moderate to severe antisocial behaviour.

Babies' babbling betters brains, language

January 18, 2018
Babies are adept at getting what they need - including an education. New research shows that babies organize mothers' verbal responses, which promotes more effective language instruction, and infant babbling is the key.

College branding makes beer more salient to underage students

January 18, 2018
In recent years, major beer companies have tried to capitalize on the salience of students' university affiliations, unveiling marketing campaigns and products—such as "fan cans," store displays, and billboard ads—that ...

Inherited IQ can increase in early childhood

January 18, 2018
When it comes to intelligence, environment and education matter – more than we think.

Modulating molecules: Study shows oxytocin helps the brain to modulate social signals

January 17, 2018
Between sights, sounds, smells and other senses, the brain is flooded with stimuli on a moment-to-moment basis. How can it sort through the flood of information to decide what is important and what can be relegated to the ...

Baby brains help infants figure it out before they try it out

January 17, 2018
Babies often amaze their parents when they seemingly learn new skills overnight—how to walk, for example. But their brains were probably prepping for those tasks long before their first steps occurred, according to researchers.

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Squirrel
not rated yet Jun 07, 2011
Looks like the attention here is low level Superior Colliculus and while the awareness is high level prefrontal. Hopefully the experimenters will develop a means to get the research with brain imaging.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.