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Attention is creative

We tend to think of attention as being a kind of optional add-on to perception: like butter on toast. So we may believe that we can see things in the world ‘without attention’ and that the role of attention is to highlight things of particular interest in the picture of the world we have in our heads, not to put them there in the first place.

But this is wrong. Attention does not arrive after the business of perception has been completed, and indeed there is no such thing as perception without attention. If perception were separate from attention, then our attention would need its own way of seeing our perception in order to know where to land upon it- to know on what to focus. But to this secondary level of perception we’d need to add another, in order that attention’s attention could be led to the right point to focus upon- and then another level of perception and then another- and so on ad infinitum. If attention isn’t on the inside of perception to begin with, then there’s no hope that it can get there by association or guess-work.

What this means is that perception must be always already attentional- that attention, defined as the capacity to selectively concentrate on one or other aspect of a (perceptual) scene, isn’t really a distinctive capacity at all, but just part of perception’s essential nature, its definition. Controlling one’s attention isn’t poking a search-light over what you’ve already seen, it is seeing differently. Attention doesn’t highlight, it warps. What we see isn’t added to by attention, it is changed by it.

So what of it?

Well, all of this recommends that we do not see our perceptual experience as some kind of objective read-out of the information that impinges upon our senses. What you end up perceiving is only constrained, and not dictated, by what’s in the world.

In other words- perception is creative, there is no clean divide between what we see and what we remember and what we imagine. There is choice in perception, just as there is choice in imagination.

What this means is that we don’t just control how we remember, we control what we remember as well.

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