Is Consciousness the Act of Paying Attention?
Are attention and consciousness the same thing? This question has troubled scientists in a variety of disciplines for ages. Is the act of paying attention to something, such as the sound of a siren in the distance, functionally the same as being conscious of it? Until recently, consciousness and attention were assumed by most scientists to be essentially the same process. However, new experiments show at last that they are separate after all.
In a perfect example of this, experimenters can make a faint image shown to one eye (such as a scantily-clad woman) become invisible by flashing a series of colorful and complicated shapes in front of the other eye. With both eyes open, you see only the flashing series of pictures, because your attention is drawn to the rapid change and away from the faint, static image. But if you wink with the eye seeing the flashing pictures, the image of the woman suddenly appears, hidden in your consciousness but below your attentive awareness the whole time.
New experiments replicating this basic concept in a magnetic scanner have achieved similar results. Researchers put volunteers in a similar visual situation to the one described above. They monitored activity in the subjects' visual cortex, and found that activity remained the same whether or not the subjects consciously saw the image target; in fact, the results didn't differentiate between who did and did not report having seen the image. Visibility of the image, then, didn't affect the activity of the visual cortex, but selective attention did. When the subjects drew their attention to the image, activity in the visual cortex shot up.
Neuroscientist Christof Koch declares:
It appears that the habitat of consciousness is not the cortical region at the bottom of the extended hierarchy of cortical areas dedicated to vision. Consciousness is restricted to higher regions, possibly those that are engaged in a reciprocal, two-way communication with the prefrontal cortex, the seat of planning.
It appears that a separate part of the brain governs consciousness from the part that governs attention, and that these two things occur distinct from one another, though they are often intertwined. The brain is much more complex and multi-layered than we have assumed. New findings such as the above only serve as a reminder that much more is happening underneath the surface than we could ever guess.