What does attention enable?

Stephen R. Diamond suggests the thought experiment of isolating the effects of conscious awareness by identifying what sorts of actions are only possible — or which experiences only occur — when they are consciously attended to. He raises the example of happiness which appears to be solely a function of the contents of conscious awareness. Consider the pleasure or happiness imparted by being the owner of a luxury car. Upon reflection, you realize that you only experience this feeling when you are actively holding the car, or some side effect of its ownership, within your attention.

What other experiences are only possible when we attend to them? When preoccupied with a task I seem to be able to respond when people speak with me. However, without moving my attention away from the task in order to think through and craft a conscious thought, my responses seem to be quite simple and often illogical or poor. Inverting this example, I can participate relatively actively in a conversation — say a phone call — and still be able to perform simple tasks, especially those that are relatively “mindless” or routine. Interestingly, I seem to also be quite handicapped when it comes to decision making — even simple decisions like what to order for lunch — if my attention is elsewhere. If my hedonic valence — feelings of pleasure or happiness — is controlled by the contents of my attention at any moment, perhaps this suggests that activities or experiences that require attention are dependent on the feedback of hedonic valence to perform the underlying mental moves.

Also published on Medium.

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