This is the lovely view from an ancient pathway near an iron age fort above our farm.

You did notice the fairy, didn't you? If not, look again!

OK, so I pasted the fairy into the picture, but now you have paid attention to a specific part of the photograph.

So what is attention?

Attention is sometimes described as filtering sensory inputs, so that only important input needs to be processed. While true, this misses the key purpose of attention.

Attention precisely designates and selects particular neural inputs.

For example, to notice the fairy, you paid attention to each part of the picture in turn until you found something fairy-like. You then paid attention to the shapes and colours in that that part of the picture to check it was a fairy.

In doing this what your brain was doing was configuring itself to select the neural inputs that you needed to pay attention to.

Attention is the brain’s equivalent of addressing in conventional computers. When programming conventional computers we number or name memory locations so that we can process their contents. For example Z = X+Y means take the value in memory location X, add it to the value in Y and put the answer in memory location Z. Attention in the brain is every bit as precise, so describing it as a filter is way too crude.

Attention is one of the key mechanisms of consciousness because it enable us to designate particular sensory inputs - for example just the colour information from one part of our visual field.

...but we can also apply attention to the content of our own minds, treating it as though it was sensory information.

Paying attention doesn't just happen of its own accord. The brain has to do some calculations to work out what it is going to pay attention to next. So at the same time that it is attending to, processing and acting on current information, it is also calculating what it would be best to pay attention to next. What wins the competition for attention are the neural sources that are most informative for the actions we want to perform. I'll say more about that in a future blog.

Peter Martin

What are your thoughts?

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