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Selected Books by Edmund Blair Bolles

  • Galileo's Commandment: 2500 Years of Great Science Writing
  • The Ice Finders: How a Poet, a Professor, and a Politician Discovered the Ice Age
  • Einstein Defiant: Genius vs Genius in the Quantum Revolution

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Lyssa Daniels

'Words direct attention'. For two years I've been reading this blog, waiting for some mechanism to make this more than a mere metaphor.
One could say that physically pointing at something directs attention to it, but how can hearing a sound wave, notoriously omnidirectional, direct anything?
What directs arbitrary movement of air molecules to activate a specific neural pattern, and how?
BLOGGER: Thank you for your patience. Two years is a long time to wait. Asking is good too, especially in this case because until you asked the question it did not occur to me that anyone might be taking the issue of attention metaphorically.

How attention works is \,said in my main post for this week, a bit of a mystery, but that it woks is an empirical fact. It is very common in the animal world for sound waves direct attention. I hear a sound and look toward it. Here's another way sound can induce a behavior. I hear a sound I have heard before. my mouth waters. Molecular movements in the air (a sound wave) have activated a specific neural pattern. How that works in detail is something that is not understood, but it can be summarized empirically by saying a person has learned to associate a sound with food. So the person's mouth waters in response to the anticipated food. Pavlovian conditioning, as this process is known, is not a metaphor.

Presumably, people learn to associate the sound of the word bread with the physical object of bread. Thus, when I say bread my attention shifts to the image or object of bread. Like I say, the process is mysterious but familiar.

I'm glad you finally asked. And Happy Thanksgiving!

giorgio marchetti

First of all I would like to thank Edmund for advertising my book.

I have then a comment for Lyssa
concerning the question : “how can hearing a sound wave, notoriously omnidirectional, direct anything? What directs arbitrary movement of air molecules to activate a specific neural pattern, and how?”

I think that your question Lyssa implies different aspects (at least I see them in your question), and I try to answer (shortly because many references and example are in my book)

1) It is generally ascertained that stimuli (whether visual or acoustic) which are not directly attended to, or to which low-level of attention or only some form of “preliminary” attention is paid to, can capture our attention. See for example the “cocktail party effect”, or the phenomenon reported by Yantis & Jonides (Abrupt visual onsets and selective attention: evidence from visual search, J. Exp. Psychol. Hum. Percept. Perform, 1990) of the “capture” of attention by abrupt onset in the visual periphery
2) However, not all stimuli to which only low level or preliminary attention is paid to, do attract attention (see the work on Inattentional Blindness by Mack and Rock) or reach awareness (see for the example the cases reported by Merikle, P. M., Smilek, D, Eastwood, J. D (2001). “Perception without awareness: perspectives from cognitive psychology”. Cognition, 79, 115-134).
3) Various factors can determine the capture our attention. I mention just two: the importance that the stimulus has for us (for example, one’s own name); the level of attention we pay.
4) One of the main factors that determines whether a stimulus to which the person has paid only limited attention can reach awareness is processing time (see Libet’s work)
5) On the specific “physical” mechanism involved in acoustic phenomena (how an omnidirectional stimulus can direct something), I have no specific reference study in my mind now, but I think that just searching in the neurophysiologic literature can give an idea about it. From an engineering point of view (how it can be implemented in a machine) I can only recommend Haikonen’s book: The Cognitive Approach to Conscious Machine. Exeter, UK. Imprint Academic (2003).
6) On the mental, psychological aspect regarding attentional activity and conscious perception and pexperience: my proposal (to be empirically verified, but anyhow supported by a bulk of evidence I provide in the book), simply put, is that:
• we are organism provided with a form of energy (which I call nervous energy),
• this energy is supplied by an organ (which I call the organ of attention)
• the organ of attention is subdivided in various parts, each one dedicated to a specific sense organ, plus one part dedicated to the organ of attention itself,
• the application and use of this energy (which I call attentional activity) modifies the state of the nervous energy itself of the specifc part of the organ of atetntion involved
• it is my hypothesis that this modification corresponds to the phenomenal aspect of consciousness. The intensity of the conscious experience is determined primarily by both the stimulus intensity and the level of attention applied (but also the arousal level must be kept into account). The qualitive aspect of the perception is determined by which part of the organ of attention is supplying the energy.
7) Last but not least: you question seems to overlook one important aspect. As we saw (point 1), hearing something can direct our attention to it. Bust most of the times, what happens is the contrary: that is, by directing our attention to something, we can hear it. This is, for me at least, the most intersting aspect of human way of mentally working. We are active organisms, who spend most of our time looking for, searching, listening to, etc. We use our nervous energy in and for these activites. The use of this energy is know as attention. Attention (above a certain threshold) gives us the conscious experience of what we have focused on.



I think that the idea of words directing attention is different then the idea of sound directing attention.
1. when sound does the directing, it is the time difference between the onset of sounds arriving at the two ears that gives a direction for the sound's source and results in attention to things in that direction. No metaphor here - just physiology.
2. when words do the directing, it is the meaning of the word (ie its relationship to other words and schema) that directs attention to concepts. Because we share a language and a culture it is possible to communicate by this manipulation of another's attention. This is very similar to pointing to a metaphor in another person's mind. The pointing works by changing the focus of attention. The metaphor is not in the explanation given by this blog, but in the very nature of words/language and concepts/thought.
BLOGGER: As I thought about the comment later, I thought she might be talking about the word 'pilot' as in pilots attention. That is a metaphor, but not of the 'mere' variety for the reasons Janet says here. It has to do with the nature of language when discussing imperceptible things like thought.

giorgio marchetti

Edmund’s answer gives me the chance to better explain my view.

I think that just speaking of “directing” – in relation to attention – is too restrictive and also can be misleading. Generally speaking, attention can not only be directed toward something, but also:

- withdrawn or disengaged from something
- it can be focused at variable levels of size, being set either widely across a display of objects or narrowly to the size of a single object;
- it can be focused at variable levels of intensity;
- it can be sustained or maintained for variable, though limited, amounts of time;
- each single attentional operation can be variously combined with other attentional operations, forming an orderly, albeit complex, sequence of attentional operations (the complexity of the sequence can vary both for the quantity and the type of operations involved);
- it can be addressed to an object or feature A, and then suspended momentarily from it, but in such a way as to keep or maintain it, as it were, in the background for a certain time, while simultaneously operating on a new object or feature B. It thus makes it possible to perform several kinds of operation such as comparing A and B, referring A to B, constructing A using B as a model, evaluating A on the basis of B, and so on;
- a sequence of attentional operations can be integrated into a new single item to be stored in memory, a phenomenon known in psychology as chunking.

(For the references, see my book)

The range of operations that can be done with and by attention is much larger than just be “directed to”, this is why I prefer to speak of “piloting” rather that “directing”.

The analyses done – for example – my colleague Giulio Benedetti, shows that many important words (what he calls “grammatical” words: conjunctions, prepositions, etc., which have the highest frequency in speech), not only “direct” attention to something, but make you act attentionally in various ways (I refer to his work for more detailed analysis: see the works in which can be freely downloaded).

Most of these analyses must be empirically verified, but we found preliminary confirmations in independent empirical research (see for example the analysis of the negation: no, not, etc.) and linguistic research performed also by other linguists


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