Attention and Mental Paint

(cross-posted at Brains)
The NYU Mind and Language seminar has started up again with a really excellent line up. Last Tuesday I attended Ned Block’s session on his paper Attention and Mental Paint. I have seen a version of this before. The basic idea comes from figures like figure a below. if one fixates (stares) ate the center and, while keeping one’s gaze fixed, moves one’s attention to an individual disk that disk will appear DARKER. After a bit of practice one can DARKEN any disk one wants by moving one’s attention around. Go ahead, give it a try!

Recently a psychologist, Marisa Carrasco, has run experiments trying to quantify this effect. Below is a reproduction of the stimulus. Here the two patches differ in contrast by 8% yet when one fixates on the center and attends to the 22% patch one will judge it to be the same contrast as the 28% patch.


Block wants to use these findings as the basis for an argument against both direct realism and representationism. The basic argument goes as follows.

  • First we focus only on two cases. The first case is when we fixate and attend to the center. In that condition subjects get the judgment about contrast right (i.e. they judge that the left patch is lower in contrast). In the second condition we fixate on the center but attend to the left patch. In that condition people get the judgment incorrect (i.e. they judge the two patches to be the same contrast.
  • The second step is his claim that there is no reason to think that either of the two cases above are illusionary. Both are veridical.
  • If both experiences are veridical then the thing that they are experiences of must differ in some property but all of the properties of the objects are the same. The only thing that has changed is that one has moved one’s attention from center to right.
  • Therefore there must be mental paint, or non-representational features to our experience (the anti-representational conclusion) or a mental aspect of mental experience (the anti-direct realism conclusion)

a lot of the discussion at the session focused on whether or not there was an illusion at work here. Block claims that in both cases talked about above the perception is veridical. Why? His idea is that both of the experiences play the same functional role and so are accurate. The pro-illusion folk (Jesse Prinz was in this camp) argued that when you attend to something you represent that thing more veridically and so the condition where one fixates and attends to the center is illusionary (Jesse preferred ‘distorted’). Block protested that one could just as well say that attention distorted, or magnified, the scene and so the fact that one has access to more information when one attends is not by itself an argument that the experience is more veridical. Some other issues came up about various responses direct realists or representationalism could make.

However, I am less interested in that issue as I am in the issue of whether there is an argument here against anything like the kind of higher-order thought theory that I am fond of (i.e. one very much like David Rosenthal’s). On this kind of view we have two distinct kind of mental representations. At the first-order level we have the mental states that represent the sensible qualities. So, when I am seeing red I am in a mental state that has a property, call it red*, the represents physical red. However the kind of representation that is going one here is not intentional or conceptual. It is homomorphic. Red* is the property which is related to green* and pink* in a way that mirrors the relations between physical red, physical green, and physical pink. The starred properties can occur both consciously and unconsciously. When they occur unconsciously there is nothing that it is like for the organism in which they occur. They become conscious when I am aware of myself as being in a red* state. According to Rosenthal I do this by having a thought which deploys the concepts Red. So on this view the higher-order thought is representational in the traditional sense and it is the thing which is responsible for the phenomenology of the experience.

So is there mental pain on this view? Well, as long as one agrees that there can be unconscious sensory states with no phenomenology (a big step!) then Rosenthal’s first-order sensory qualities will count as mental paint. They are not intentional and they are mental. But they do not play a role in determining the phenomenology (except in the sense that we get the concepts we deploy in the higher-order thought from them) and so if we restrict ourselves only to conscious experiences it does look like Rosenthal denies the existence of mental paint. A conscious experience of red is constituted by a ‘I am seeing red’ thought which is completely intentional/representational. So then does Ned’s argument cut any ice against Rosenthal’s account of conscious experience?

It is not clear that it does. Ned’s argument gets its force from the claim that the thing being represented would have to be different because all conscious experiences are or represent just the actual properties that the object actually has. But on Rosenthal’s view we have the first and second order mental states. So, one could hold that there is some change in the first-order representation of the two patches or one could hold that the first-order representations are the same in the two cases and what changes is the way in which we are conscious of them. In talking briefly about this with David he seems to think that attention changes the first-order state whereas I seemed to think it was teh content of the higher-order state which changed. But since we are talking about conscious experiences here and it is the higher-order state that accounts for the conscious phenomenology the difference has to be in the way that we are conscious of the patch in the two cases…this may be because of attention in a causal sense but it is the content of the higher-order state that has to account for the difference in the phenomenology.

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22 thoughts on “Attention and Mental Paint

  1. I didn’t realize the seminar sessinos were open to the public. I had hoped to take the course myself, but the Monday student session conflicted with other classes. Looks like I lucked out.

  2. Hey that’s cool that you are posting reports from the seminar. The Psychology of Consciousness class I’m teaching this semester on Tues and Thurs doesn’t let out till 3:15 and there’s no way I could make it to NYU in time.

    I think the gist of what you say the HOT-heads oughtta say is what they oughta say. If there’s a difference in what it’s like, then there needs to be a difference in the concepts employed in the relevant HOTs, like, “I am perceiving three discs of equal brightness” vs “I am perceiving three discs one of which is brighter than the rest”. Of course it’s open to you HOT guys to say that there’s *also* a difference in the first-order states. But that’s not necessary. What’s nec is the HOT content.

    Of course, I’m not a HOT head, but I’d say something in the ball park: the what-it’s-like differences between the attended and unattended cases are due to conceptual content differences. There may *also* be differences at the nonconceptual “redstar” level. But that’s not nec. What’s nec is the deployed conceptual content.

    BTW, and this is totally irrelevant, when I do the three disc thing, the covertly attended disc seems darker to me. Is my brain broken or is this stuff about it getting brighter some kind of typo?

    • Hey Pete, no that is no typo! It gets brighter!!

      So do you have a position on which of the two is illusionary?

      Also, why aren’t you worried about the part of Block’s argument that stresses that there are no features of the object that we can be representing?

  3. Oh noes!. My brain *is* broken. I keep getting a darker disc!

    (Also, have I mentioned that I have inverted spectra?)

    Anyway: For the discs, when one is covertly attending to just one and it seems, um, brighter (so you say!) that’s illusory. In real reality, the discs are equally bright. In the figure with the 22% and 28% contrast patches, the case in which they seem of equal contrast because one is covertly attended, that’s illusory. In real reality there’s a 6% difference in how contrasty they are.

    So, my main move is just to deny the whole “they’re both veridical” thing.

    This strikes me as such an easy move to make, and the whole “they’re both veridical” thing strikes me as so undermotivated, that I suspect that maybe I’m missing something. But what? That part about how they play the same functional role? If they play the same functional role, then how can the difference between them be reportable?

    Anyway, I haven’t read Ned’s paper, I’m just basing my remarks on what you are attributing to him here.

    • Oh wait, it’s my brain thats broken!! Yes if we are talking about the first figure then the figure darkens. That is a typo. I am confused…sorry!

      Yeah, my first reaction was that the no illusion move was that it was weird but I am not doing Ned’s argument justice in the post. What he really claims is that there is no principled reason to choose which of the two experiences is the veridical one (btw Jesse thought it was the other way around. He claimed that when we pay attention we more accurately represent the attended thingy). Ned tries to argue that neither option are well motivated. If we go Jesse’s way it is strange to count the condition where we get the contrast comparison right as illusionary and if we go your way we face the problem that attention is spread out over a gradient and so there will be many points that are equidistant between the two patches which differ minutely; which of these is the veridical one? Actually as I type this I start to loose my grip on why it is a good argument…maybe I am missing something…

      As for the positive case here is what Block actually says:

      This may seem paradoxical: two percepts can differ in respect of say perceived size or perceived contrast, yet neither be illusory. How can that be? By way of understanding why there is no paradox, it might be useful to consider, briefly, loudness. Loudness the perceived intensity of a sound is a function of a number of variables, aside from actual intensity, namely frequency, bandwidth and the duration of the sound. Although loudness in some sense presents intensity and is experienced as presenting intensity, the same intensity can sound differentially loud depending on other variables. Analogously, although perceived size presents actual size, perceived size is a function not only of the actual size but of other variables notably the distribution of attention. Just as there can be two phenomenally different but non-illusory presentations of the same sound intensity, there can be two phenomenally different but non- illusory presentations of the same size.”

      The idea seems to be roughly this: If I see a circle from an angle it will appear oval. That phenomenal representation –the oval one– is a veridical representation of the way the circle looks to me. When I see the circle straight on it looks like a circle and that is veridical also. So the same shape -the circle- can have two phenomenally distinct presentations that are both veridical. So too, Block claims, both the experience of the 22% patch as lower in contrast than the 28% patch and the experience of the 22% patch as the same contrast as the 28% patch are both veridical -yet phenomenally different- presentations of the same 22% contrast patch.

  4. OK, so I went back and read the paper and I think I got the argument now. In the case that you claim is illusionary you are focusing your eyes on a point that is equidistant from both of the patches and fixing your attention on the left hand patch.In the case that you claim is veridical you are fixating your eyes at the center point and attending to the center point. But if we imagine a line running up and down between the two disks (Block’s figure 7) then every point on that line is a pint that is equidistant between the two patches. Thus at every point if one attends to it and fixates at it one will get the comparison correct. Yet at each point on this imaginary line one has a phenomenally distinct experience. So, which of these phenomenally distinct experiences that yield correct judgements of the comparative contrasts is the veridical one? There is nothing that can decide that issue.

  5. Holy crap, I’m glad my brain’s unbroken! You had me thinking I was pretty weird for a moment there.

    Thanks for the further details re Block. This helps. I’m still not convinced, but I’m getting a better sense of the argument.

    With the coin thing, I’m happy saying that when non-ovals seem oval, that’s non-veridical seeming.

    I’m not super sure I totally follow the thing about the vertical line between the two patches. What’re the phenomenal differences supposed to be? Is it simply that (1) I’m aware of what region of space I’m attending to? or is there (2) supposed to be some change in how contrasty the patches look? or (3) changes in how dark the attended region is?

  6. Block’s claim is that every point on the vertical line is equidistant from the two patches and so fixating on it would yield an accurate comparison. Yet each point would yeild a phenomenally distinct experience because, Block argues, attentional effects “shade off” from the center of attention. I guess the reasoning is that if attention really does change one phenomenal experience then having more of it would bring more of a change and having less of it would bring less of a change and attending to each point on the line will give one different attentional gradients and so different phenomenal experiences.

    I share Block’s unease with saying that the oval experience is illusionary. The coin really does look oval from that angle so in what way is my experience getting anything wrong?

    Sorry about the brain teasing! Hakwan actually suggested that if you told subjects it went the other way that they would see it that way…I guess he was wrong!

  7. This is cool stuff. Thanks for your further remarks.

    My past experiences with discussions about the phenomenology of tilted coins is that they descend into table thumping impasses pretty rapidly. Some people say things like that the coin never looks oval and I’ve got no idea how to respond to that. Maybe we’ll hit a similar impasse real soon.

    Anyway, my way of thinking of this is perhaps simplistic, but here’s how it goes: there’s the ways things are and the ways things seem. Sometimes things are as they seem. The cat seems dead and it really is dead. Sometimes things aren’t as they seem. The cat seems dead but he’s really just sleeping. If the coin seems oval, and it really isn’t oval, then it is not the way it seems and thus: non-veridical seeming.

    This bit about “oval is really the way it seems” makes me want to ask “as opposed to what, merely seeming to seem oval?” I tend not to go for iterated seemings, but you HOT guys love them, so they should pose no real problem for you. Non-oval external object causes first-order oval*, which can be accompanied by a HOT that deploys the phenomenal concept OVAL* (a concept not about ovals but about oval*s. So there’s a first order seeming, which is illusory and there’s a higher-order seeming, which is veridical. There might also be a HO deployment of non-phenomenal ROUND. So, the HOT you’d express by saying “looks oval but is really round” would involve the phen con OVAL* and the nonphen con ROUND.

    The vertical line argument is very interesting. I’m not sure what the best response is. I’m still attracted, however, to the move that denies that the phenomenally distinct experiences are all equally veridical. I’m also toying with the move that denies they are phenomenally distinct. I’m looking at Ned’s paper now and it looks like he doesn’t say what the phenomenal distinction is. And when I myself try to attend to different parts of the line, it’s not obvious that there’s a phenomenal distinction. I guess I know that I’m attending to one point versus the other. Maybe the difference is just due to a HOT expressible as “I’m attending to point in the center” vs “I’m attending to a point above the center”?

    Hmmmm.

    I can feel it pushing me toward a mental paint sort of view. If there are distinct representations that are both accurately representing the same thing, its very tempting to say the differences are not due to content. But then I start to think that a lot is going to hinge on what content is.

    What’s your hunch, as someone who likes HOT, about HOTs that differ along, say, hesperus and phosphorus lines? Is there a difference in what it’s like in “I am perceiving hesperus” and “I am perceiving phosphorus”? How about “I a perceiving that Jared has more hair than Josh” vs “I am perceiving that Josh has less hair than Jared”?

  8. Anyway, that was a whole bunch of rambling thinking out loud with lots of parts that aren’t really intended to cohere with each other. Just throwin stuff out there to see what flies.

  9. Ooohhh table Thumping; I’m good at that! 🙂

    Thanks for the thinking out loud!

    I think that part of what is driving the unease that people like Ned and I have with calling the perception of the coin as oval illusionary is that there is no perceptual system that is getting it wrong. So in most cases of visual illusions we can tell a story about the way that the system typically functions and why this particular stimulus causes the system to be fooled. So in the case of the three disks in the post we can tell a story about minimizing the number of transparent layers, in the muller-lyer we can tell some story about angle detection and computation of depth, in the Hermin grid illusion we tell some story about receptive fields and lateral inhibition. In each case there is some way in which the system is being tricked in such a way that its normal operation produces an illusionary representation. However, in the cases we are talking about nothing like that is going on. The perceptual systems are functioning normally and produce the representation that they are supposed to. Isn’t that an important difference?

    The problem with denying that they are veridical is that they preserve the very thing which prompted you to say the experience was veridical in the first place; people get the judgement of relative contrast correct. But if so then getting the judgement correct isn’t enough.

    You really don’t get a phenomenal difference? Are you fixating and attending to various parts of the line and then comparing the two disks? If one does that while fixating and attending to the uppermost part of the line versus the bottommost part of the line surely there is a phenomenal difference…

    Let me think about the HOT stuff and get back to you…

  10. 🙂 🙂 🙂

    What’s the emoticon for table thumping?

    Coin stuff:
    I think of veridicality pretty much just in terms of truth vs falsity. Whether things are functioning normally seems orthogonal to me. I don’t mind saying that things that are currently functioning normally currently have false representations. If the normal functioning gives rise to a looking-oval, and the objective reality is not oval, then it seems that false representation the content of which is something like “Lo, an oval” is the best thing to posit. What else are you gonna do, posit an oval sense datum? Boo! If you stick to your guns claiming that seeming oval is veridical, doesn’t there need to be something oval of which your mental state is true? I’m worried that if you follow Block on this, you’re gonna wind up a sense datum theorist. Are you OK with that?

    Re: the phenomenal difference thing.
    I think I’m following the directions properly. All I’m feel like I’m getting is an awareness that I’m attending to one region vs. another. Nothing seems to be changing in terms of brightness or contrast. But, I’ll grant, my awareness that I’m attending to one region vs. another is a what-it’s-like difference.

  11. I think the true/false stuff is exactly the problem. For someone like Block these phenomenal properties are not the kinds of things which have accuracy/true/false conditions. So one has a representation of the coin that is assessable in terms of truth and falsity and that representation can be accompanied by many different non-representational phenomenal experiences (mental paints). Consider his example of loudness. You have a sound with one amplitude which will be perceived as different loudness if the frequency is varied or if the time the tone is played is varied. In such cases Block thinks you have an accurate representation of the amplitude accompanied by a different phenomenal experience and each phenomenal experience is a veridical one (in the sense of being non-illusionary)…so there is no issue with sense data…

    There is supposed to be a difference in your experience of the 22% patch depending on where one fixates/attends to on the dotted line. And as far as I can tell Block thinks this follows automatically from considerations about the gradient of attention…when I do it I really can’t tell if there is a phenomenal difference or not…this stuff is hard! …Maybe there is one but since it is in effect presented diachronically we don’t notice it?

    But either way isn’t there mere fact that someone like Jesse thinks that the case you say is illusion is the one that is veridical enough to hint that maybe which on you choose is a bit arbitrary?

  12. The only absolute I can draw from this is that both illusions (if in fact there was one at work there) are incredibly addictive, I just spent the better part of 20-30 minutes repeatedly indulging in them.=P

  13. I’m still having a problem seeing how paint-ism is a third option (neither representationalism nor sense data theory), but I really should finish reading the whole paper before pressing further.

    The charge of arbitrariness is fair if Jesse and I are offering these remarks as describing a datum or a desideratum. However, I take mine to be derivations of a theory. I’m guessing the same is true for Jesse. But I dunno.

    I like your two-fisted bespectacled table-pounder.

  14. Hmm, just came across Block’s essay via Phil Papers, absolutely did not get it, and started searching for comments seeking illumination. I think my problem is basically Mandik’s: if the disk has 22% contrast, and attending a certain way causes it to appear to match a 28% contrast disk, then the obvious thing to say is that the content of the experience of the disk is illusory –the experience represents the disk as being darker then it is in fact.

    I see some quoted elaboration of Block’s here, but it makes no sense to me. If an experience represents a sound as being louder than it in fact is, the experience is illusory — this even if “true loudness” could only be explained as a complex perceiver-relative property whose relation to physical intensity is not straightforward. Similarly if apparent size is different than actual size, for example when the experience of the Muller-Lyer figure represents one line as longer than the other, that is a case of illusion. And so on, and so on. What am I missing?

    (Actually a set of contents can include an inconsistency, so it is possible the full set of contents in one’s experience of the Muller-Lyer figure — on graph paper, maybe — might be said to represent the two lines BOTH as having different lengths and as having the same length. Another advantage of thinking in terms of representational content. Possibly this could handle some of the phenomena Block adduces.)

    I also don’t get the dotted line argument. Is it just the argument that a veridical experience of a scene while attending to point A has some phenomenal difference than a veridical experience of the same scene while attending to point B? But we don’t need any esoteric illusions to make that argument.

    PS I take it circular tabletops or pennies seen from the side as you move with respect to them normally do not look elliptical but continue to look to have a constant circular shape (shape constancy).

  15. […] 10. Does the Zombie Argument Rest on a Mistake? 9. The Singularity, Again 8. Emotive Realism and Moral Deviance 7. Dream a Little Dream 6. Swamp Thing about Mary 5. Empiricism and A Priori Justification 4. Outline of the Case for Agnosticism 3. Explaining Consciousness and Its Consequences 2. The Identity Theory in 2D 1. Attention and Mental Paint […]

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