Sunday, January 20, 2013

Attention without Awareness

So it turns out that attention is not the same thing as awareness 1, 2, 3, 4,. It seems really weird that you can pay attention to things that you're not aware of, but you can. Attention and awareness often overlap a lot, but they can also diverge wildly. 
Most occurrences of attention without awareness aren't too crazy. It actually happens all the time and again, we're not even aware of it.

Highway hypnosis is the classic example that almost everyone has experienced. Remember that time when you managed to drive home from work perfectly fine because you were paying attention, yet you had no memory of what happened along the way? It just seemed like no time has passed. Did you stop and ask yourself why? The papers I've read talk about attention as needing to react to things and awareness as needing to encode things for memory. You don't need to remember the details of your drive home, but you better be paying attention so that you don't crash.
Self deception is another common example of attention without awareness - and this one get's a bit weirder. When shit bothers you, there's obviously attention on something since you're responding by being bothered, yet you won't let yourself be aware of the problem. You might realize there is something there that needs fixing - "yeah, its right there and I can grab at that dark blob, but I don't wanna." But sometimes when it's sufficiently scary, you can feel symptoms of anxiety and just have no awareness that a problem even exists - its just not there - yet you feel it. It's really cool, in a sucky sort of way. This sort of motivated cognition gets otherwise smart people to be very stupid and they'll even know  when to anticipate needing to make excuses, yet they often seem to be totally unaware that they're full of shit...
And of course, with hypnosis we can go crazier still. I had an analytically minded engineer friend saying "no" when I asked him if he was aware of what I was saying. Yet he was responding to the suggestions quite nicely. The funny part is that he was never aware of not being aware of what he was reading - since, you know, his awareness was turned off - and his model of "not aware" is more like "not attentive". When a suggestion didn't work, he became aware again of what was happening and didn't think anything notable had happened - until I showed him his responses. ;)
We can use this understanding of attention and awareness and apply it to hypnotic trance. As a hypnotic subject, you need to pay attention to the suggestions so that you can respond, but you do not need the meta-level awareness to encode your interpretation of what's happening. In fact, that level of awareness is very counterproductive. It's almost the anti-essence of hypnotic trance. The labels people stick on things have a tendency to really get in the way when you're showing them things they have never before seen.

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