ATTENTION

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Attention is not just another ‘function’ alongside other cognitive functions. Its ontological status is of something prior to functions and even to things. The kind of attention we bring to bear on the world changes the nature of the world we attend to, the very nature of the world in which those ‘functions’ would be carried out, and in which those ‘things’ would exist. Attention changes what kind of a thing comes into being for us: in that way it changes the world. If you are my friend, the way in which I attend to you will be different from the way in which I would attend to you if you were my employer, my patient, the suspect in a crime I am investigating, my lover, my aunt, a body waiting to be dissected. In all these circumstances, except the last, you will also have a quite different experience not just of me, but of yourself: you would feel changed if I changed the type of my attention. And yet nothing objectively has changed.

So it is, not just with the human world, but with everything with which we come into contact. A mountain that is a landmark to a navigator, a source of wealth to the prospector, a many-textured form to a painter, or to another the dwelling place of the gods, is changed by the attention given to it. There is no ‘real’ mountain which can be distinguished from these, no one way of thinking which reveals the true mountain.

Science, however, purports to be uncovering such a reality. Its apparently value-free descriptions are assumed to deliver the truth about the object, onto which our feelings and desires are later painted. Yet this highly objective stance, this ‘view from nowhere’, to use Nagel’s phrase, is itself value-laden. It is just one particular way of looking at things, a way which privileges detachment, a lack of commitment of the viewer to the object viewed. For some purposes this can be undeniably useful. But its use in such causes does not make it truer or more real, closer to the nature of things.

Attention also changes who we are, we who are doing the attending. Our knowledge of neurobiology (for example, of mirror neurones and their function) and of neuropsychology (for example, from experiments in association-priming) shows that by attending to someone else performing an action, and even by thinking about them doing so – even, in fact, by thinking about certain sorts of people at all – we become objectively, measurably, more like them, in how we behave, think and feel. Through the direction and nature of our attention, we prove ourselves to be partners in creation, both of the world and of ourselves. In keeping with this, attention is inescapably bound up with value – unlike what we conceive as ‘cognitive functions’, which are neutral in this respect. Values enter through the way in which those functions are exercised: they can be used in different ways for different purposes to different ends. Attention, however, intrinsically is a way in which, not a thing: it is intrinsically a relationship, not a brute fact. It is a ‘howness’, a something between, an aspect of consciousness itself, not a ‘whatness’, a thing in itself, an object of consciousness. It brings into being a world and, with it, depending on its nature, a set of values.

This leads to a fundamental point about any attempt to understand the brain. It is a particularly acute case of the problems encountered in understanding anything. The nature of the attention one brings to bear on anything alters what one finds; what we aim to understand changes its nature with the context in which it lies; and we can only ever understand anything as a something.

There is no way round these problems – if they are problems. To attempt to detach oneself entirely is just to bring a special kind of attention to bear which will have important consequences for what we find. Similarly we cannot see something without there being a context, even if the context appears to be that of ‘no context’, a thing ripped free of its moorings in the lived world. That is just a special, highly value-laden kind of context in itself, and it certainly alters what we find, too. Nor can we say that we do not see things as anything at all – that we just see them, full stop. There is always a model by which we are understanding, an exemplar with which we are comparing, what we see, and where it is not identified it usually means that we have tacitly adopted the model of the machine.

Experience is forever in motion, ramifying and unpredictable. In order for us to know anything at all, that thing must have enduring properties. If all things flow, and one can never step into the same river twice – Heraclitus’s phrase is, I believe, a brilliant evocation of the core reality of the right hemisphere’s world – one will always be taken unawares by experience, since nothing being ever repeated, nothing can ever be known. We have to find a way of fixing it as it flies, stepping back from the immediacy of experience, stepping outside the flow. Hence the brain has to attend to the world in two completely different ways, and in so doing to bring two different worlds into being. In the one, we experience – the live, complex, embodied, world of individual, always unique beings, forever in flux, a net of interdependencies, forming and reforming wholes, a world with which we are deeply connected. In the other we ‘experience’ our experience in a special way: a ‘re-presented’ version of it, containing now static, separable, bounded, but essentially fragmented entities, grouped into classes, on which predictions can be based. This kind of attention isolates, fixes and makes each thing explicit by bringing it under the spotlight of attention. In doing so it renders things inert, mechanical, lifeless. But it also enables us for the first time to know, and consequently to learn and to make things. This gives us power.

These two aspects of the world are not symmetrically opposed. They are not equivalent, for example, to the ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ points of view, concepts which are themselves a product of, and already reflect, one particular way of being in the world – which in fact, importantly, already reflect a ‘view’ of the world. The distinction I am trying to make is between, on the one hand, the way in which we experience the world prereflectively, before we have had a chance to ‘view’ it at all, or divide it up into bits – a world in which what later has come to be thought of as subjective and objective are held in a suspension which embraces each potential ‘pole’, and their togetherness, together; and, on the other hand, the world we are more used to thinking of, in which subjective and objective appear as separate poles. At its simplest, a world where there is ‘betweenness’, and one where there is not. These are not different ways of thinking about the world: they are different ways of being in the world. And their difference is not symmetrical, but fundamentally asymmetrical.

Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.

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