Our conscious experience of the world seems to go in lockstep with our attentional focus: We tend to see, hear, taste, and feel what we attend to, and vice versa. This tight coupling between attention and consciousness has given rise to the idea that these two phenomena are indivisible. In the late 1950s, the honoree of this special issue, Charles Eriksen, was among a small group of early pioneers that sought to investigate whether a transient increase in overall level of attention (alertness) in response to a noxious stimulus can be decoupled from conscious perception using experimental techniques. Recent years saw a similar debate regarding whether attention and consciousness are two dissociable processes. Initial evidence that attention and consciousness are two separate processes primarily rested on behavioral data. However, the past couple of years witnessed an explosion of studies aimed at testing this conjecture using neuroscientific techniques. Here we provide an overview of these and related empirical studies on the distinction between the neuronal correlates of attention and consciousness, and detail how advancements in theory and technology can bring about a more detailed understanding of the two. We argue that the most promising approach will combine ever-evolving neurophysiological and interventionist tools with quantitative, empirically testable theories of consciousness that are grounded in a mathematically formalized understanding of phenomenology.
- Attention: Neural Mechanisms
- Cognitive neuroscience