Attention in the cake shop of the mind

In a cake shop different cakes are arrayed for us to select from. We point to the one we want and describe it - the long one with chocolate on top and cream inside, on the bottom shelf, please!

Conscious awareness gives similar access to the array of mental objects that are currently active in our mind. When we look into our own mind we need a way of pointing to what we want to pay attention to. We normally do this so automatically, that we don’t usually think of it explicitly, but if we are to understand consciousness, we need to work out how we do it.

One of the ways that the contents of our mind are laid out for us to select from, is according to the role they played in the mental processing we are doing. This includes the following categories:

• The objects and their attributes that we have just sensed. • How we are currently feeling (valence now). • The motive that we are currently seeking to satisfy (valence increase). • The action we have current committed to do. • How we are expecting to feel if the action is completed (what the valence will be). • The objects we are already focusing attention on, in order to control the action we are doing. • The changes to objects and their attributes that we next expect to sense. • Other actions we considered but didn’t do.

Each of these categories can be populated with any sensed object, action or feeling from the full breadth of human experience. The categories therefore provide an overall grammar of thought that lets us select what to pay attention to, within our mind, in a structured way.

This attentional mechanism of selection enables us to bring a wide range of different activities into a common framework for the purposes of reflection, planning or communication. This is a key element of how consciousness works.

The cake display was in the Jenkins Bakery shop in Ystradgynlais, South Wales. Jenkins Bakery was founded in 1921. Their website is here.

Peter Martin

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