Conceptual and Empirical Issues about Perception, Attention and Consciousness

Instructors: Ned Block and David Carmel

Tuesdays 6-8, 5 Washington Place, 2nd floor

Readings are available on the web at the urls listed below. In addition, many readings can be found at Dropbox. The dropbox urls will in most cases be attached to the authors’ names. Some articles will be available only via a password that will be mentioned in class. Please send info about broken links to

Requirement for those taking the course for credit: two 10 page papers, one at midterm, the other at the end of the course. The second paper can be a revised version of the first. The mid-term 10 page paper was due at the end of the 7th week, but since the next week is Spring Vacation, the paper can be handed in the next week by March 18th. 

Most of the sessions will look at how current empirical knowledge may inform conceptual discussions on perception, attention and consciousness. The reading material for many these sessions will comprise short reviews and research papers, chosen for being relatively accessible to non-scientists. We will devote a few minutes in each preceding session to explaining how to approach these papers and what to focus on when reading them. If anyone is interested in sinking their teeth into any specific topic, the additional recommended readings will enable you to get into the nitty-gritty.


Slides from: Feb 1, Feb 8, Feb 15

Jerry Fodor’s rant on fMRI


January 25: Higher Order Theories of Consciousness

Josh Weisberg (2010), “Misrepresenting Consciousness”, Philosophical Studies
Ned Block (2011), “The Higher Order Approach to Consciousness is Defunct” Analysis
Hakwan Lau (2010), “Theoretical motivations for investigating the neural correlates of consciousness” Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews (WIREs) Cognitive Science 2010 DOI: 10.1002/wcs.93

Background Reading: David Rosenthal, “A Theory of Consciousness” in N. Block, O. Flanagan and G. Güzeldere, The Nature of Consciousness: Philosophical Debates (MIT Press, 1997).


February 1: Locus of attentional selection – the debate and load theory

For class:

1. Lavie, N. (2006). The role of perceptual load in visual awareness. Brain Research, 1080, 91-100.
2. Rees, G., Frith, C. D., Lavie, N. (1997). Modulating irrelevant motion perception by varying attentional load in an unrelated task. Science, 278, 1616-1619.
3. De Fockert, J. W., Rees, G., Frith, C. D., & Lavie, N. (2001). The role of working memory in visual selective attention. Science, 291, 1803-1806.

Additional reading:

I. The development of load theory:
1. Lavie, N., & Tsal, Y. (1994). Perceptual load as a major determinant of the locus of selection in visual attention. Perception and Psychophysics, 56, 183-197.
2. Lavie, N. (1995). Perceptual load as a necessary condition for selective attention. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 21, 451-468.
3. Lavie, N., Hirst, A., de Fockert, J. W., & Viding, E. (2004). Load theory of selective attention and cognitive control. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 133, 339-354.
4. Lavie, N. (2005). Distracted and confused?: selective attention under load. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 9, 75-82.

II. Neuroimaging of load:
5. Schwartz, S., Vuilleumier, P., Hutton, C., Maravita, A., Dolan, R. J., & Driver, J. (2005). Attentional load and sensory competition in human vision: modulation of fMRI responses by load at fixation during task-irrelevant stimulation of the peripheral visual field. Cerebral Cortex, 15, 770-786.
6. Yi, D. -J., Woodman, G. F., Widders, D., Marois, R., & Chun, M. M. (2004). Neural fate of ignored stimuli: Dissociable effects of perceptual and working memory load. Nature Neuroscience, 7, 992-996.

III. Load and awareness:
7. Cartwright-Finch, U., & Lavie, N. (2007). The role of perceptual load in inattentional blindness. Cognition, 102, 321-340.
8. Macdonald, J. S. P., & Lavie, N. (2008). Load Induced Blindness. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 34, 1078-1091.
9. Carmel, D., Saker, P., Rees, G., & Lavie, N. (2007). Perceptual load modulates conscious flicker perception. Journal of Vision, 7 (14), 1-13.


February 8: Change Blindness

Dretske, F. (2007). What Change Blindness Teaches about Consciousness. Philosophical Perspectives, 21, 215-230.
Tye, M. (2010). Attention, Seeing and Change Blindness. Philosophical Issues, 20.


February 15: What we talk about when we talk about attention

For class:

1. Walsh, V., Attention—the aether of Psychology
2. Carrasco, M., Ling, S., & Reed, S. (2004). Attention alters appearance. Nature Neuroscience, 7, 308-313.
3. Liu, T., Abrams, J., and Carrasco, M. (2009), Voluntary attention enhances contrast appearance. Psychological Science 20, 3, 354-362
4. Yeshurun, Y, Montagna, B., Carrasco, M. (2008) On the flexibility of sustained attention and its effects on a texture segmentation task. Vision Research 48, 80-95

Additional Reading:

On whether different types of attention are really different things:

1. Wojciulik, E., & Kanwisher, N. (1999). The generality of parietal involvement in visual attention. Neuron, 23, 747-764.
2. Liu, T., Stevens, S. Carrasco, M. Comparing the time course and efficacy of spatial and feature-based attention. Vision Research 47, 108-113

On whether attention really does alter appearance. Three contentious issues:

I. Cue polarity:
1. Schneider, K. A. (2006). Does attention alter appearance? Perception & Psychophysics, 68, 800-814.
2. Ling, S., & Carrasco, M. (2007). Transient covert attention does alter appearance: A reply to Schneider (2006). Perception & Psychophysics, 69, 1051-1058.

II. Stimulus visibility:
3. Prinzmetal, W., Long, V., & Leonhardt, J. (2008). Involuntary attention and brightness contrast. Perception & Psychophysics, 70, 1139­1150.
4. Carrasco, M., Fuller, S., & Ling, S. (2008). Transient attention does increase perceived contrast of suprathreshold stimuli: A reply to Prinzmetal, Long and Leonhardt. Perception & Psychophysics, 70, 1151-1164.

III. Type of decision:
5. Schneider, K. A., & Komlos, M. (2008). Attention biases decisions but does not alter appearance. Journal of Vision, 8(15):3, 1–10.
The next one is long and tedious (sorry, meticulous!). Just read enough to get the gist:
6. Anton-Erxleben, K., Abrams, J., & Carrasco, M. (2010). Evaluating comparative and equality judgments in contrast perception: Attention alters appearance. Journal of Vision, 10(11):6, 1-22.


February 22: Approaching attention via conceptual analysis

Note: these readings all require the password that was announced in class
Christopher Mole, “The Metaphysics of Attention.” In Attention: Philosophical and Psychological Essays. Editors: Christopher Mole, Declan Smithies and Wayne Wu, forthcoming with Oxford University Press, May 2011.
Christopher Mole, Attention is Cognitive Unison: An Essay in Philosophical Psychology. Oxford University Press, 2010
Chapter 4.5, 4.6
Chapter 6
Chapter 7.3 (and Notes)


March 1: Dissociating attention and awareness

For class:

1. Tsuchiya, N. & Koch, C. (2009). The relationship between consciousness and attention. In S. Laureys & G. Tononi (Eds.), The Neurology of Consciousness, Elsevier Ltd.
2. Van Boxtel, J. J. A., Tsuchiya, N., & Koch, C. (2010). Opposing effects of attention and consciousness on afterimage. PNAS 107, 8883-8888.
3. Bahrami, B., Carmel, D., Walsh, V., Rees, G., & Lavie, N. (2008). Spatial attention can modulate unconscious orientation processing. Perception, 37 (10), 1520-1528.
4. Kentridge, R. W., Heywood, C. A., & Weiskrantz, L. (2004). Spatial attention speeds discrimination without awareness in blindsight. Neuropsychologia, 6, 831-835.

Additional reading:

1. Bahrami, B., Lavie, N., & Rees, G. (2007). Attentional load modulates responses of human primary visual cortex to invisible stimuli. Current Biology, 17, 509-513.
2. Bahrami, B., Carmel, D., Walsh, V., Rees, G., & Lavie, N. (2008). Unconscious orientation processing depends on perceptual load. Journal of Vision, 8 (3), 1-10.
3. Lamme, V. A. F. (2003). Why visual attention and awareness are different. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 7, 12-18.


March 8: The Speckled Hen, Crowding, and whether Attentional Fields are Basic

Left over from February 8th
Dretske, F. (2007). What Change Blindness Teaches about Consciousness. Philosophical Perspectives, 21, 215-230.
Tye, M. (2010). Attention, Seeing and Change Blindness. Philosophical Issues, 20.
New for this week: (The Intriligator & Cavanagh article is long and difficult and will not be covered in detail)
James Intriligator & Patrick Cavanagh (2001). The Spatial Resolution of Visual Attention. Cognitive Psychology 43, 3, 171-216
Denis Pelli & Katharine Tillman (2008). The Uncrowded Window of Object Recognition. Nature Neuroscience 11, 10, 1129-1135 (Supplementary Information)


March 15: NYU Spring Vacation
March 22: no class


March 29: What is / How to measure unconscious (and conscious) perception

For class:

1. Hannula, D. E., Simons, D. J., & Cohen, N. J. (2005). Imaging implicit perception: promise and pitfalls. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 6, 247-255.
This one is a bit harder, but give it a try - it focuses on the links between experimental paradigms and theory:
2. Seth, A. K., Dienes, Z., Cleeremans, A., Overgaard, M., & Pessoa, L. (2008). Measuring consciousness: relating behavioural and neurophysiological approaches. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 12, 314-321.

Additional reading:

1. Persaud, N., McLeod, P., & Cowey, A. (2007). Post-decision wagering objectively measures awareness. Nature Neuroscience, 10, 257-261.
2. Clifford, C. W. G., Arabzadeh, E., & Harris, J. A. (2008). Getting technical about awareness. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 12, 54-58.
3. Schurger, A., & Sher, S. (2008). Awareness, loss aversion, and post decision wagering. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 12, 209-210.
4. Clifford, C. W. G., Arabzadeh, E., & Harris, J. A. (2008). A good bet to measure awareness? Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 12, 210. (Comes for free with previous reading.)
5. Seth, K. A. (2008). Theories and measures of consciousness develop together. Consciousness and Cognition, 17, 986-988.
6. Lau, H. C., & Passingham, R. E. (2006). Relative blindsight in normal observers and the neural correlate of visual consciousness. PNAS, 103, 18763-18768.


April 5: Emotion and awareness

For class:

1. Tsuchiya, N., & Adolphs, R. (2007). Emotion and consciousness. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 11, 158-167.
2. Yang, E., Zald, E. H., & Blake, R. (2007). Fearful expressions gain preferential access to awareness during continuous flash suppression. Emotion, 7, 882-886.
3. Feinstein, J., Adolphs, R., Damasio, A., & Tranel, D (2011). The human amygdala and the induction and experience of fear. Current Biology, 21, 34-38.

Additional Reading:

1. Nasrallah, M., Carmel, D., & Lavie, N. (2009). Murder, she wrote: Enhanced sensitivity to negative word valence. Emotion, 9 (5), 609-618.
2. Tsuchiya, N., Moradi, F., Felsen, C., Yamazaki, M., & Adolphs, R. (2009). Intact rapid detection of fearful faces in the absence of the amygdala. Nature Neuroscience 12, 1224-1225.


April 12: Direct Realism and whether Unconscious Perception is Sub-Personal

Mark Johnston, (2004). The Obscure Object of Hallucination. Philosophical Studies, 120, 113–183.
Tyler Burge (2010). Origins of Objectivity, Chapter 9 (This reading requires a password.)


April 19: Iconic Memory and Indeterminacy

Ned Block (2008). Consciousness and Cognitive Access. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 108, Issue 1 pt 3 (October 2008), p. 289-317
Ian Phillips (2011). Perception and Iconic Memory: What Sperling Doesn’t Show. Mind and Language
James Stazicker (2011). Attention, Visual Consciousness, and Indeterminacy. Mind and Language


April 26 Conscious state – how to tell whether someone (or something) is conscious, and what can the brain do in the absence of consciousness?

For class:

This seems like a lot, but items 1-4 are each one page or less!
1. Owen et al (2006). Detecting awareness in the vegetative state. Science 313, p 1402.
2. Nachev & Hussain (2007). Comment on Owen et al. Science 315, p 1221a.
3. Greenberg (2007). Comment on Owen et al. Science 315, p 1221b.
4. Owen et al (2007). Response to comments. Science 315, p 1221c.
5. Monti et al (2010). Willful modulation of brain activity in disorders of consciousness. New England Journal of Medicine, 10.1056/NEJMoa0905370
6. Steven Laureys. Eyes open, brain shut. Scientific American, May 2007.

Additional reading:

1. Stins, J. F. (2009). Establishing consciousness in non-communicative patients: A modern-day version of the Turing test. Consciousness and Cognition 18, 187–192.
2. Gray et al (2007). Dimensions of mind perception. Science 315, p 619.
3. Beckinschtein et al (2009). Classical conditioning in the vegetative and minimally conscious state. Nature Neuroscience 12(10), p 1343.
4. Davis et al (2007). Dissociating speech perception and comprehension at reduced levels of awareness. PNAS 104, 16032–16037.
5. Boly et al (2008). Intrinsic Brain Activity in Altered States of Consciousness: How Conscious Is the Default Mode of Brain Function? Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. 1129: 119–129.
6. Owen et al (2006). Supplementary Online Material for Detecting awareness in the vegetative state. Science 313.


May 3: Unattended Perception: Unconscious vs Preconscious

Stanislas Dehaene and Jean-Pierre Changeux (2004). Neural mechanisms for access to consciousness. In The Cognitive Neurosciences, volume in press. Michael Gazzaniga, 3rd edition, 2004.
Stanislas Dehaene (2008). Conscious and Nonconscious Processes Distinct Forms of Evidence Accumulation?. In Strüngmann Forum Report: Better Than Conscious? Decision Making, the Human Mind, and Implications For Institutions, pages 21-49. MIT Press, 2008.