In a nutshell: Attention and perceptual awareness can have similar or opposing effects, depending on the circumstances.

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Traditionally, researchers believed that you had to pay attention to something in order to experience it consciously, or be aware of it. However, several studies have shown that focused attention is not required for conscious perception; the two processes can function separately. For example, even when you are completely absorbed in a video game, you might still be consciously aware of whether the person approaching you from the side is your mother or your younger brother.

In one prominent study, researchers aimed to separate the effects of attention and perception by measuring the duration of an afterimage – the optical illusion that remains in your field of vision, even after the original image has disappeared (here’s an example). This method was chosen because it allows researchers to manipulate attention and perceptual awareness independently: attention to the original image can be controlled by introducing a task that competes for attention, while perceptual awareness can be influenced by making the image consciously visible or invisible. (To understand how an image can be consciously invisible, think of binocular rivalry, where a different image is presented to each eye. The brain still receives information about each image through each eye, but we are only consciously aware of one of the two images at each point in time. Get a pair of 3D red cyan glasses and try it out yourself!)

By varying the conscious visibility of the adaptor, the researchers found that the afterimages lasted longer when participants were perceptually aware of it. However, paying attention to the adaptor decreased the afterimage duration. Because attention and perceptual awareness had the opposite effect, the researchers concluded that the two processes must be independent.

Given the importance of this research, Brain Function CoE investigators Susan Travis, Paul Dux and Jason Mattingley from the University of Queensland set out to replicate it. They addressed some of the limitations of the original study by adding more participants and increasing the number of times the task was completed.

Like their predecessors, the Brain Function CoE team found that the afterimage lasted longer when the adaptor was consciously visible. However, unlike the original research, their study showed that paying attention to the adaptor also increased afterimage duration, indicating similar – rather than opposing – effects of attention and perceptual awareness on afterimage duration.

The team’s research suggests that there may be specific conditions where attention and perceptual awareness have similar or opposing effects.

Next steps:
The team will run further experiments to test what happens in our brains when we pay attention – in particular, whether attention works the same way when we are consciously aware of something and when we are unaware of it.

Travis, S. L., Dux, P. E., & Mattingley, J. B. (2017). Re-examining the influence of attention and consciousness on visual afterimage duration. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 43(12), 1944–1949. doi: 10.1037/xhp0000458

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