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WIREs Cogn Sci
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What is attention?

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Abstract We define attention as “the set of evolved brain processes that leads to adaptive and effective behavioral selection." Our emphasis is on understanding the biological and neural mechanisms that make the behavioral properties of attention possible. Although much has been learned about the functional operation of attention by postulating and testing different aspects of attention, our view is that the distinctions most frequently relied upon are much less useful for identifying the detailed biological mechanisms and brain circuits. Instead, we adopt an evolutionary perspective that, while speculative, generates a different set of guiding principles for understanding the form and function of attention. We then provide a thought experiment, introducing a device that we intend to serve as an intuition pump for thinking about how the brain processes for attention might be organized, and that illustrates the features of the biological processes that might ultimately answer the question. This article is categorized under: Cognitive Biology > Evolutionary Roots of Cognition Psychology > Attention Philosophy > Psychological Capacities
Two key points about our definition of attention. (a) Attention is not a causal agent that acts on the brain. Although it is sometimes convenient to refer to attention this way, we think it is an impediment to understanding how it operates. (b) Attention is a subset of the brain processes that accomplishes selective processing, and it results in particular aspects of observed behavior. The behavioral outcomes provide a ground truth for establishing that attention‐related brain processes are involved. However, the brain processes involved with attention overlap with those associated with other functions, including but not limited to perception and cognition
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Attention as a pachinko device. (a) Our first pachinko predates the emergence of attention. The trajectory of the ball corresponds to the processing of a sensory input and leads to either “approach” or “escape” or “wait,” depending on which gate captures the ball as it descends. (b) Our elaborated pachinko includes several additional features that aim to replicate the changes in brain processes that result in attention. There are more pins (more elaborate processing) and more gates (more diverse set of possible actions). Crucially, the pins are organized as cartridges that can be swapped in and out based on the previous outcome, following rules learned by trial‐and‐error experience
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The limitations of the top‐down and bottom‐up depiction of attention. (a) Schematic depiction of how top‐down and bottom‐up effects contribute to attention. Top‐down attention (red) is guided by the subject's goals, whereas bottom‐up attention (blue) is driven by stimulus events. (b) The distinction between top‐down and bottom‐up attention does not correspond to how these functional properties are organized in the brain. Neurons with attention‐related modulation of their activity show combinations of both top‐down and bottom‐up effects
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The distinction between a functional view and a description of the underlying process, using plants as an example. (a) From a functional point of view, it is reasonable to summarize plants as drawing carbon dioxide from the air and releasing back oxygen, while sequestering carbon. (b) A more detailed description of the biochemical process explains that the oxygen released by plants into the air comes from water not carbon dioxide. Although the functional view serves a purpose, it can also lead to erroneous conclusions about the underlying process
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Philosophy > Psychological Capacities
Psychology > Attention
Cognitive Biology > Evolutionary Roots of Cognition

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