To be conscious of something, do we need to pay attention?

Have you ever spoken to someone who is deeply engrossed in their phone? Frustrating, isn’t it. It can feel like you’re being ignored, or like you don’t even exist. But, does that person’s attention on their phone actually mean that they’re not conscious of you?

New research suggests that some features of consciousness are distinct from attention; meaning that someone can be conscious of someone or something even if not paying attention. This information is particularly useful for the future of industrial design, where the tailoring of graphic user interfaces, such as windows, icons, and menus, can be used to highlight important details to users. The automotive industry, for example, may like to put more consideration into the layout and complexity of interactive features in cars, and not just how many interactive features to include.

The study that revealed this crucial information was led by PhD student Mr Julian Matthews in the Tsuchiya lab at MICCN. They developed a game-changing tool, which saw improvements made to the dual-task method; a method that involves participants focusing their attention on either a central or peripheral task, and then examines their performance when each task is performed alone or together at once. The problem with the dual-task is that it takes half a day to properly train people, and just because a task can be performed doesn’t mean that we are conscious of it. And so the team made major improvements to the method, using special algorithms to reduce training to only 20 minutes and cutting-edge analytical techniques to relate performance to consciousness.

“Science and philosophy have forever asked, ‘is attention necessary for consciousness?’ Using the improved dual-task, and hundreds of pictures of faces shaded with colour, participants were asked to focus their full attention on distinguishing either the gender of each face or the orientation of the colours,” Mr Julian Matthews said. “Participants then engaged their attention in a challenging task at the centre of the screen, and we then asked them about the colours and gender again. They could no longer answer the simple question about colours yet, remarkably, face-gender could be consciously differentiated with virtually no cost. Our study suggests that we can be conscious of face-gender with little or no attention. This finding can be applied to the real world to guide visual design everywhere from advertising to the defence industry.”

The team now plans to investigate which exact features of consciousness are separate to attention. The information gained will be used to tailor industrial design around those features. In addition, the improved dual-task is being used to identify impairments of consciousness in clinical groups. This, the team hope, will help to establish rigorous diagnostic criteria for functional neurological disorders (psychiatric disorders), to help identify patients going forward and therefore administer the appropriate treatment.

Read about this study and other papers on attention and consciousness in the forthcoming special issue of The Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions B: Perceptual consciousness and cognitive access.

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