‘Every one knows what attention is’, William James once said. But despite the number of theories of attention that have proliferated over the decades – from spotlight or filter theories to premotor, perceptual-load, and biased-competition accounts – and the gathering of a great deal of empirical data, there is still little consensus on what attention is, how it works, how it relates to other psychological entities (notably consciousness), or whether it even exists.

Scientific discussions:

Anderson, B. (2011). There is no such thing as attention. Frontiers in Psychology, 2, article 246. (full text)

We know much less about attention than we think we do, and we need to radically revise our assumptions about it, most importantly by recognising attention as a set of effects rather than a single cause.

James, W. (1890). Attention. In W. James, The principles of psychology (pp. 402-458). London: Macmillan. (full text)

A classic discussion of what we think is obvious about attention, taking in different kinds of attention, and a treatment of the still live question of whether attention is a cause or an effect. James ultimately comes down on the side of cause, but for ethical rather than scientific reasons: when the available evidence is inconclusive, ‘one can leave the question open whilst waiting for light, or one can do what most speculative minds do, that is, look to one’s general philosophy to incline the beam. The believers in mechanism do so without hesitation, and they ought not to refuse a similar privilege to the believers in a spiritual force.’

Lavie, N., Beck, D. M., and Konstantinou, N. (2007). Blinded by the load: Attention, awareness and the role of perceptual load. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 36920130205. (full text)

Mole, C. (2013). Attention. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy (Fall 2013 Edition). (full text)

A detailed account of the history of philosophical inquiry into attention, current theories of attention, and its potential roles in relation to other phenomena including consciousness, other minds, knowledge, and voluntary action.

Roessler, J. (2005). Joint attention and the problem of other minds. In N. Eilan, C. Hoerl, and J. Roessler (Eds), Joint attention: Communication and other minds: Issues in philosophy and psychology (pp. 230-259). Oxford: Oxford University Press. (partial preview)

Suggests that our capacity for joint attention (attending to something in concert with someone else) is foundational in our understanding of other minds, because it provides a natural context in which we find ourselves in the same situation as another person, and a way of thinking about how experiences might be shared ‘from the inside’ without a need for a theoretically problematic notion of simulation. Focuses in particular on the development of joint attention in infants and children as it illuminates the adult case, with implications for knowledge and communication.

Watzl, S. (2011). The nature of attention. Philosophy Compass, 6(11), 842-853. (paywall)

A summary of intuitive (folk-psychological), philosophical, and scientific accounts of attention. A companion piece, ‘The philosophical significance of attention’ (pp. 722-733), sets out attention’s links with other philosophical topics like consciousness, agency, and epistemology. (full text)

Cognitive humanities discussions:

Gurton-Wachter, L. (2013). ‘Ever on the watch’: Wordsworth’s attention. Studies in Romanticism, 52(4), 511-535. (paywall)

Connects Wordsworth’s poetics, and Romanticism more generally, with the history of scientific and philosophical thought on attention and distraction. Includes reflections on poetic rhythms, the act of keeping watch, the witnessing of history.

Phillips, N. (2014). The art of attention: Navigating distraction and rhythms of focus in eighteenth-century poetry. In K. Parker and C. Weiss Smith, Eighteenth-century poetry and the rise of the novel reconsidered (pp. 187-206). Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press. (partial preview)

Argues that the usual way of thinking about novel-reading, as rapt immersed attention, should be complemented by consideration of how 18th-century authors worried about distracted audiences with shortening attention spans. The chapter discusses the power of literary forms to shape focus, particularly through the intricate cognitive dynamics of poetry-reading. It goes on to connect 18th-century metaphors for attention (unifocal or multifocal) to a present-day rhythmic model of attending (dynamic attending theory), and to argue for the relevance of 18th-century verse to brain-imaging studies of rhythm and attention.

Raby, M. (2014). The phenomenology of attention in Julian of Norwich’s A Revelation of Love. Exemplaria: A Journal of Theory in Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 26(4), 347-367. (paywall)

Uses the history of thought about attention, with an emphasis on phenomenology (particularly Heidegger and Husserl), to analyse the richness of phenomenological description in 14th-century Julian of Norwich’s attention to her own attentiveness. Includes sections on beseeching and beholding as forms of attention, and the limits of attention in bodily pain.

Polvinen, M. (2013). Affect and artifice in cognitive literary theory. Journal of Literary Semantics, 42(2), 165-180. (paywall)

Argues against the conventional opposition between emotional immersion and rational distance in engagement with fiction, and for a model based on joint attention that emphasises the rhetorical qualities of literature as well as the back-and-forth movements in our engagement with imagined worlds, concluding that self-reflection can be an integral part of engagement. The textual case study is Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which combines emotion and artifice, and foregrounds the attempt to grasp readers’ attention.

Add van Peer et al 2007?? Lines on feeling (foregrounding) – and/or Sanford Emmott attention capture??