Deflective Attention

© C.O. Evans, 1974[]

Section One

In this paper my intention is to try to carry one step further a certain kind of thinking that is being done on the question of the nature of meaning, significance and symbolization. Instead of trying to characterize this type of thinking: I want to put before you a passage that both describes it and is itself a representative example of it. The passage comes from a paper entitled "Homo Symbolicus: a Definition of Man" written, by my former colleague in the Philosphy Department at Louisiana State University, Edward Henderson. 1 One of the many things that is interesting about his passage is the fact that you can follow its meaning even if you disagree with the terminology in which it is phrased. Here it is:

What we have described is an imaginary case, the ideal limit of immersion in reality for any living being. Whether there are any actual instances of such total immersion I do not know, though I should think that surely plant life and the lowest forms of animal life are so immersed. But the imaginary construction depends not so much on description of observable life forms as on the negation of characteristics of human life, which we know first hand because we are human. For one thing is sure, human life is not so totally immersed in the here and now. It is in fact defined by uroboric consciousness through which it is detached and disengaged from the immediately felt disturbances of its organic activity. Man's symbolic consciousness includes more than such immediately felt interaction events. Through the specialized sense organs, which are organs of specialized

-page 2-

activity subserving the practical life of the organism (e.g. as sight subserves driving), sense presentations of the direct interactions are added. When the presentations are retained they become re-presentations of the interaction events within which they originally arose. It is then possible for them to take on an intentional character whereby they "mean" the past interaction events or are known to be representations of them. Retained presentations thus become memories of past events. Presentations can also come to "mean" the future, thereby making possible anticipation. It is in just such attachment of intentional reference to retained sense presentations that symbolic consciousness is born; memory and anticipation are its first forms, and all further developments are based upon them. Symbolic consciousness is therefore from the very beginning detachment from the here and now, access to the past and future. 2

In this passage a contrast is being made between two forms of consciousness which I shall call a symbolic consciousness and a non-symbolic consciousness, respectively. A description of a non-symbolic consciousness would be one that I gave in my book - there identified as a pure sensuous consciousness. 3 But let us for the moment proceed with Henderson's account of the distinction between two forms of consciousness. One he characterizes as immersion and the other as detachment; immersion attaching to non-symbolic consciousness, and detachment applying to symbolic consciousness. The object of our immersion or detachment is currently lived experience, the here and now. What we wish to point out about these two forms of consciousness is that they stand opposed to each other. They are different.

-page 3-

When you are in one you cannot at the same time be in the other. Henderson introduces the idea of a non-symbolic consciousness as an imaginary case, an ideal limit. I did the same for my idea of pure sensuous consciousness. But now let us suppose that it is possible to experience a non-symbolic consciousness. Or even, let us suppose an imaginary person who is capable of passing from a non-symbolic consciousness to a symbolic conscious-ness back and forth at will. Such a person would be able to correctly say of himself "I can alter my state of consciousness." He would come to find it convenient to invent a term to designate these alternative states of consciousness. He would in due course come up with the term altered states of consciousness or ASC's. Charles T. Tart, editor of a book with the title "Altered States of Consciousness" gives this definition of ASC's:

An altered state of consciousness for a given individual is one in which he clearly feels a qualitative shift in his pattern of mental functioning, that is, he feels not just a quantitative shift of more or less alert (more or less visual imagery, sharper or duller, etc.), but also that some quality or qualities of his mental processes are different. Mental functions operate that do not operate at all ordinarily, perceptual qualities appear that have no normal counterparts, and so forth. 4

Now that the term ASC exists I want to suggest that we consider a non-symbolic consciousness to be an ASC and that we equally consider a symbolic consciousness to be an ASC. Were it possible for a person to pass from a non-symbolic consciousness to a symbolic consciousness there can be no doubt that he would

-page 4-

describe the difference between these two forms of consciousness as one in which "some quality or qualities of his mental processes are different."

Let us assume for the sake of argument that it turned out to be philosophically tenable to treat a non-symbolic consciousness and a symbolic consciousness as ASC's. This would enable us to formulate the question of meaning, of intentionality, in terms of a contrast between two ASC's: the question of meaning would then be the question, How does a symbolic ASC differ from a non-symbolic ASC? When we have the answer to that question, we have the answer to the question, "What is meant by 'meaning' in the Henderson passage (and other passages like that)?"

In this paper I want to suggest what happens as we pass from a non-symbolic ASC to a symbolic ASC. Since it is a suggestion rather than a description I shall call my suggestion a theory of meaning.

The careful reader will already have detected a flaw in my thinking, and must first get this out of the way before proceeding with the theory. I started out by referring to the non-symbolic ASC as an imaginary one, or at least one experienced by an imaginary person, and I end up by saying that we could learn to understand the symbolic ASC by contrasting it with the non-symbolic ASC. But we can't make the contrast if we do not experience non-symbolic ASC's. This problem explains why Henderson talks of an "imaginative construction" of the non-symbolic ASC.

-page 5-

Obviously we would be in a much better position if we did not have to rely on imaginative constructions, but could get into the ASC in question ourselves. Nevertheless, for those who have not experienced such an ASC themselves, an imaginative construction would be better than nothing. It would give some understanding.

However, the suspicion is growing in the West that thinkers in the East have for millennia possessed the secret of passing from one ASC to another. More pertinent still, the ASC's they seem most interested in are the ASC's I have contrasted as symbolic versus non-symbolic ASC's. Here again I want to make a suggestion, and the suggestion is that when Zen monks and other higher meditators reach their preferred ASC the ASC in question is the one I have identified as a non-symbolic consciousness. It could well turn out to be true, therefore, that there have long been among us people who understood the nature of meaning in virtue of their understanding of the difference between a non-symbolic ASC and a symbolic ASC.

It would inevitably suggest itself to those who are involved in EEG research that the ASC's I have identified can be correlated with the two contrasting brain states defined by the presence of Beta waves or Alpha waves as detected by biofeedback systems. The thought would obviously be that when Beta waves are present the ASC experienced by the person is symbolic consciousness and when Alpha waves are present the ASC experienced by the person is non-symbolic consciousness. Since I have not

-page 6-

yet experimented with a biofeedback instrument I don't know whether this is so. This matter I must leave until I have personal knowledge on the sbject, but I will caution that I do not at the moment suggest that such a simple correlation exists.

My reason for reservation is that the non-symbolic ASC is a far more radical state than the ASC known as the alpha state. Here I want to suggest that experience of a non-symbolic ASC is experience of the mystical state of ecstasy, a state which is surely to be distinguished from the alpha state, although it will also possess characteristics found in the alpha state.

If I can successfully clarify the difference between the symbolic ASC and the non-symbolic ASC it would follow on this suggestion that would have at the same time clarified the difference between the ASC known as mystical experience, and the ASC known as normal waking consciousness.

With these preliminaries over I can get on with the theory of meaning I wish to advance.

Altered states of consciousness come about, I suggest, because of the existence of different ways in which we can give our attention to our experience. As psychologists tell us, the experience we have of a particular event will depend on both the mental set of the person having the experience, and his perception of the setting of the experience. When a person alters his mental set he experiences the event differently, and the alteration of mental set can also lead him to perceive his

-page 7-

setting differently. Thus, not only can mental set be altered, which in turn alters the experience, but more complicatedly, an alteration in mental set can cause an alteration in perceived setting, and this in turn can alter the experience. The change in the subject's mental set produces a change in his manner of experiencing an event. It would follow on this reasoning that there are as many ASC's as there are ways in which change of mental set can result in change in manner of experiencing an event.

I would like to say in passing that I am taking the position that attention is the key to our understanding of ASC's: I am making it the central operator of the mind. Also in passing I would like to say that the question of free-will versus determinism comes down ultimately, I believe, to the question whether or not we can gain control over our attention shifts.

To give greater weight to the idea that ASC's are caused by attention shifts I can point out that such forms of consciousness as dreaming, ordinary waking consciousness, daydreaming, trance conditions, meditative contemplation, and mystical experience are all regarded in the literature as ASC's, and each of these forms of consciousness differs from the others by characteristic differences in the way the subject's experience of an event is affected by his attention. We attend differently when we are day-dreaming, or in a trance, from the way we ordinarily attend. My theory can now be stated quite simply. We can identify a particular ASC by identifying the particular attention shifts that are characteristic of it. In particular we

-page 8-

can identify a symbolic ASC by identifying the attention shift characteristic of it. Our task then is to describe the attention shift in question. This can be done quite simply for symbolic ASC's. The shift comes about as a result of a process I shall name attention deflection. It is not because I cannot describe it that I name it, on the contrary I am naming what I am about to describe. Obviously, attention deflection can only be the criterion for a symbolic ASC to the extent that the process is readily identifiable from the description. This I shall now try to give.

Three possibilities define the relation between attention and the experiencing of an event. (1) The experiencing of an event may absorb attention, in which case we have what I shall call absorptive attention. When in states of absorptive attention the subject feels drawn ever deeper into the experience until he experiences loss of subjecthood. The attention shift to absorptive attention defines the ASC I have called the non-symbolic ASC. (2) Attention may be drawn away from the subject's experience of an event by the intrusion of another event. The attention shift to events experienced as intrusive defines an ASC known as distraction, or what in my book I have called unordered attention. Mammals below man would appear to be predominantly in this ASC (3) The subject's experience of an event may itself cause the subject's attention to switch to something else, in this case, no sooner has the experience of the event claimed attention than attention is deflected from experiencing the event in question to something else to which the experience

-page 9-

of the event causes the attention to shift. The point about this type of attention is that the experiencing of the event 'triggers' the attention switch. In terms of deflective attention an ASC can be defined as a symbolic ASC when the experiencing of events while in this ASC themselves cause attention to switch from the experiences of those events to the experiencing of other events. (See figure 1, directly below).

Figure 1 -
Open Sequence (i.e., day dreaming)

= events deflecting attention
= path of attention

It is readily apparent that whenever any experiencing of an event is given a symbolic function it is able to perform the function of symbol because it causes attention to switch to the experience of an event that is being symbolized. The other words, symbolization consists in attention deflection pure and simple.

This can be brought out by considering the relation between a sign and the thing it signifies. Typically a sign is an object or a mark that is presented by way of sense experience. We see it, hear it, touch it, and so forth. It is something in front of us (experientially speaking). But the object qua sign does not lead to absorptive attention. That is to say, we do not lose ourselves in the experiencing of the event that is described as perceiving the sign. Typically we pay hardly any attention to the sign at all. The sign causes our attention to pass to the event signified. This means that our attention passes to another experience of an event which I will characterize as the thought of the thing signified. We have the situation, then, in which our attention passes from the sign we see to the thought of what the sign means: attention is deflected from sense experience of sign, to thought of thing signified. When this

-page 10-

process occurs the subject reports that the sign has meaning, or more technically, intentionality.

It is crucial to have a clear idea of just what is going on when experiencing of an event is described as recognizing a sign. In order to make this clearer I shall use the distinction I made in my book: the distinction between projected consciousness and unprojected consciousness. I have not the room here to give an exposition of this distinction, but I shall give an example from which it is easy to get the idea. Take the case of a reader reading a text. The reader sees certain words, but his attention is not focally on the words themselves, his attention is rather given over to the thoughts that are being communicated by use of those words. The words in the text belong to unprojected consciousness, the thoughts transmitted by those words belong to projected consciousness. The fact that we are only unprojectedly aware of the words in the text is meant to explain the well-known fact that we miss glaring misprints while reading. Since the text is not in focal attention at the time, WE do not notice the misprints. But the important point is this: the words of the text are still before us all the while: they need to be in unprojected consciousness to perform their sign function. As long as the words of the text are in unprojected consciousness they exist for the reader, and are in a position to cause the attention of the reader to switch to the thoughts so caused. 5

A model of what is involved might help here. Think of attention as beam, such as a beam of light, and imagine this

-page 11-

beam of light shining on an object, and being reflected from it to reveal something else. The object (sign) serves as a prism by means of which the beam of attention is directed away from the sign itself to something else (of which the object is the sign). Further imagine that there is no way for the beam of attention to reveal the thing signified directly. In other words, imagine that the presence of the sign is needed if the subject is to hold the thing signified in projected consciousness. When you have understood this model you will understand the sense in which the words of the text (sign) need to remain in unprojected consciousness if the reader is to know what he is reading (have thoughts connected with reading in projected consciousness).

This model allows us to understand what phenomenologists mean when they speak of consciousness as being 'directed at' objects. A sign is 'directed at' the object signified. This directedness at is supposed to be the feature of intentionality.

In the light of the model we can now carry this line of thought a stage further and say this, The explanation of how it is that consciousness is consciousness of or is directed at an object is this. When experience of event A causes attention to switch to experience of event B we can speak of the experience of event A as being of or directed at experience of event B. In brief, we can describe experience of event A as an intentional event: as having meaning, or significance, and the experience of event B would be its meaning, significance, or intentional object. This model allows us to replace the mysterious movement of consciousness which is described as some kind of "intentional

-page 12-

reference" to an object with the non-mysterious switch of the subject's attention from experience of event A to experience of event B. We are then dealing with something everybody can understand.

Let me now give in summary my identification of a symbolic ASC in terms of deflective attention. A symbolic ASC is one in which all attention is symbolic attention: that is to say, it is an ASC in which each experience of an event itself causes attention to switch to another event, and in turn that experience of an event further causes attention to switch to yet another event in an endless concatenation of attention deflections.

Understanding the sign function in terms of attention deflection illuminates the experience we have of a sign as in some sense pointing away from itself when it functions as a sign. To put it picturesquely we might say that a good sign is a sign that does not draw attention to itself, but on the contrary deflects attention away from itself. A sign does direct attention away from itself (past itself) to something else when the subject's attention to the sign causes him to focus attention upon something else. A sign works by directing attention away from itself. Wittgenstein understood this point when he understood that a picture could only picture a situation (and hence be meaningful) when it directed attention away from itself to the situation depicted. 6

Let me give an example to illustrate what I am saying. imagine that the sign of a railway crossing were put on exhibit in an art gallery. We visit the gallery and see the railway

-page 13-

crossing on exhibit. Our first reaction is one of surprise:

"Good heavens, what is a railway crossing sign doing in here," we exclaim. Our mental set on going into the gallery had not prepared us to find a railway crossing sign there. The setting is paradoxical, since on all previous occasions we had seen railway signs next to railway crossings, and nowhere else. Seeing the sign in a paradoxical setting will cause an immediate and massive attention deflection. So much so that the painted metal structure in front of us is hardly seen at all. The next attention deflection might be to the thought that in the new and unusual setting the sign function of the railway crossing sign is totally missing. Now when the sign function of the experience of an event (seeing the exhibit) is missing, the perception is thrown back upon the object itself. And the way is prepared for a new ASC, a new mental set, brought on by the new and unusual setting. The railway crossing sign gets scrutinized for the first time in its concrete particularity. When this process is carried past a certain point a new ASC comes into being, a non-symbolic consciousness. Attention becomes absorbed in the experience, and not deflected from it to another experience. The suspension of such attention deflection, if it takes place, means that the railway crossing sign gets perceived in its suchness, or as it is in itself quite apart from its being also a sign. Its sign function falls away. Attention becomes drawn in, lost, absorbed, fascinated.

It is to be observed that a non-symbolic ASC containing the experience of the railway crossing sign apart from its sign

-page 14-

function is not yet reached while the subject remains conscious of the fact that the railway crossing exhibit is on show in an art gallery. Awareness of the setting entails the mind's structuring in a definite mental set, and as long as a definite mental set is determining the attention that the exhibit is receiving, deflective attention is still in operation. One then sees the exhibit as making some kind of statement, perhaps. But imagine the setting receding into the background altogether, so that there was no consciousness of the setting against which the object of focal attention is set. With the loss of setting goes loss of mental set, and with the loss of mental set goes the loss of deflective attention. Then and not until then are we in a non-symbolic ASC.

I am suggesting that a non-symbolic ASC, which I also identify with a certain type of mystical ASC, can be defined as an ASC lacking the mechanism I have called deflective attention, or one in which attention deflection has been suspended. I realize here that I am distinguishing two very different types of ASC. (a) A non-symbolic ASC of a subject who totally lacked a symbolic ASC. (b) A non-symbolic ASC of a subject who had the capacity for symbolic ASC's but who at the time was suspending the operation deflection. (b) is the more interesting to me, since I am interested in that type of non-symbolic ASC which can by contrast enlighten us as to the nature of symbolic ASC's.

At this point I would like to interject a certain observation about the phenomenological method. I want to suggest

-page 15-

as a limitation of that method the fact that phenomenology is striving to understand the nature of symbolic ASC's from within themselves. Against this method I want to contrast the method of striving to understand an ASC from outside that ASC and from within some contrasting ASC. In other words only by getting out of the ASC you want to learn about - and you get out by getting into another - can you learn how it differs from some other type of ASC, and only when you learn how it differs will you understand the nature of the ASC you were originally enquiring about: in our case symbolic ASC's. Thus, what the phenomenologists say about meaning is ultimately opaque because they are encircled in the symbolic; fastened in the position of explaining the symbolic in terms of itself.

We can say something much more substantial about symbolic ASC's, I believe, if we step out of the circle of attention deflections altogether. By so doing we come upon attention deflection itself as the mechanism underlying each and every symbolic ASC. What I am asserting (as my theory) is that attention deflection creates meaning, significance, world. It follows from this theory that a non-symbolic ASC is one of which neither significance nor lack of significance can be attributed to it. It is a consciousness beyond the question of significance. To put it paradoxically, but none the less intelligibly, it is a consciousness the significance of which to the subject is that it has no significance. This is what

-page 16-

I understand to be Nirvana. As soon as we look for the significance of something we thereby execute an attention deflection to a possible significance, the experience itself slips into unprojected consciousness and the mind is off in a series of attention deflections chasing possible significances.

The point to notice is that the deflections become the objects of attention instead of the experience causing the deflections being the object of attention. This causes the split between experience and thought. We may speculate that the ultimately human neurosis is the one that is caused by the phenomenon of attention deflection itself, for when experience drops its threshold to the level of unprojected consciousness, and thoughts occupy the place of projected consciousness, a basic detachment of the subject from lived and felt experience in the here and now has occurred.

In elaboration of this idea it is useful in this connection to mention Sartre's thesis that there is a connection between consciousness and nothingness. 7 We have to remember my criticism of the phenomenologists when discussing Sartre, namely, that for him there is no such thing as a non-symbolic ASC, neither in actuality nor possibility. In my terms, he presupposes that where there is consciousness there is attention deflection. Given this presupposition it follows that in every consciousness attention is switched from an actual experience which is going on in the here and now, to some thought, some possible experience pointing to the past or the future of which the mind forms a mental image. The point is that qua deflection, the deflection is a deflection from the immediacy of the here and now, its

-page 17-

actuality, to the hypotheticality of the deflection: its concern with possibilities that are not now actual. Because attention deflection takes the mind from the actuality of experience to the non-actuality of conceived experience (thoughts of experience, past or future) it would be fitting to characterize a symbolic ASC as one in which actual experience deflects attention to entertained possibilities - nothingnesses. This feature of attention deflection explains, I believe, what Henderson describes as the detachment produced by symbolic ASC's.

On my theory it should be theoretically possible for a subject to shift his attention in such a way that he passes from a symbolic ASC to a non-symbolic ASC. Such would be the result if the subject gained control over his capacity to deflect attention. If attention deflection could be inhibited, a non-symbolic ASC would be the result. It is interesting in this regard to note that when the Zen Master instructs his pupil to get into his preferred ASC he tries to get his pupil to stop his ceaseless mental chatter. What he is talking about, of course, is nothing but circuits of attention deflections. As Te-shan remarks "Only when you have no thing in your mind and no mind in things are you vacant and spiritual, empty and "marvelous." 8

I now want to point out a certain difficulty in principle about trying to give a description of the state of consciousness that would result if the subject was successful in completely inhibiting his attention deflections. It is a difficulty a non-symbolic ASC shares with a mystical ASC and which is one of

-page 18-

the reasons I have for equating the two (for at least one version of mystical experience). It is repeated tiresomely often that mystics spend a great deal of time talking about a phenomenon they in the very same breath allege to be ineffable. They are supposed to be silenced with the logical objection that they are trying to say the unsayable. Now if I am right in thinking that a certain kind of mystical state is identical with a non-symbolic ASC we at once run into this difficulty. No attempt to describe a non-symbolic ASC can take place without that very attempt causing the subject to lose his non-symbolic ASC. He loses it as soon as he employs signs in order to arrive at meanings, significances. As soon as he begins his descriptions of necessity the attention deflections that enable him to do this must be resumed. Ex hypothesi, the subject is no longer in a non-symbolic ASC. Furthermore, if the aim of the subject is to try to get someone else to understand what it is like to be in a non-symbolic ASC, he must necessarily fail if his description of the ASC forces his hearer to remain in a symbolic ASC in order to understand him. I suggest this is the way sticks rather than words are used to teach the pupil about a non-symbolic ASC. He has to be induced to inhibit his attention deflections.

Now I am alleging that we can shift from a symbolic ASC to a non-symbolic ASC by a particular kind of attention shift; a shift from deflective attention to absorptive attention.

I am not going to try to say in this paper all that eventually I hope to say about the contrast between deflective attention and

-page 19-

absorptive attention and the manner in which consciousness is altered by a shift from one form of attention to the other. But a few things must be made clear here. It necessarily follows that when deflective attention is inhibited and its place taken by absorptive attention the ASC becomes one in which reality testing and ego functions cease. The subject becomes absorbed in his experiencing of events. But since the subject is in absorptive attention he will not experience those events as events, or as events having significance for him. Gone will be their significance, and specifically their significance for him, since in the absence of deflective attention there will be no experience of self. On the contrary the experience of a non-symbolic ASC will be a no-self sort of experience, or a 'loss of self' experience. It will be an experience of unity, of oneness of the entire orchestration of experience. Such a non-symbolic ASC is described by Christian mystics as mystical union with God.

To those familiar with my book I can take my characterization of a non-symbolic ASC a stage further. When talking about a symbolic ASC I have mentioned the importance for our experiencing of an event of both mental set and setting. The argument of the book is the claim that in effect the distinction between mental set and setting is underpinned with the distinction between unprojected consciousness and projected consciousness. The book argues that this distinction emerges again in another guise as the distinction between subject and object.

-page 20-

Now it will be remembered that I used the distinction between unprojected consciousness and projected consciousness to make the point that in a symbolic ASC the experiencing of an event becomes relegated to unprojected consciousness in virtue of the process of deflective attention. I am now in the position to make the point that when deflective attention is inhibited and the subject shifts to absorptive attention this is not to be conceived as a situation in which the experiencing of an event is taken out of unprojected consciousness and becomes instead the object of attention; i.e. projected consciousness. It is rather that when we have absorptive attention the structuring of consciousness into unprojected consciousness and projected consciousness gives way, dissolves. That is the full significance of inhibiting deflective attention. Consciousness ceases to be polarized in this way. It follows that when the railway crossing sign gains my absorptive attention I can no longer be taking it to be a railway crossing sign or anything else or indeed anything at all. My contact with my experience becomes entirely non-conceptual, entirely felt. No mental set is making any particular experiencing of an event focal, neither does it make any particular experiencing of an event an element of unprojected consciousness. Such polarization of experience is superceded. This, as I conceive of it, accounts for the unity experienced in mystical ASC's.

The experiencing of an event is neither in unprojected consciousness nor in projected consciousness when nothing else is going on over and above the experiencing of events. As

-page 21-

experience is taking place, that is all, and the subject is not aware that he is experiencing events, or even that he is experiencing. In this sense there is absorption. Now if any description of such a non-symbolic ASC is called for the description of it as one in which the subject was immersed in his experience of the here and now would be overwhelmingly called for. There would be nothing to the ASC in question other than experiential flow in the here and now. Detachment would be a theoretical impossibility. The characteristic of absorptive attention as opposed to deflective attention explains the description of a non-symbolic ASC as an immersion in the here and now, the ongoing flow of life's experiences of events.

Henderson and I reach the same conclusion about a non-symbolic ASC. We both see it as a case of immersion in experience. What I hope I have done is offer an explanation for this immersion by deducing it from an ASC in which attention deflection has been inhibited.

I hope by now I have got you interested in wanting to have a closer look at deflective attention. How does it come about, or have I just found another name for a mystification? Again my answer is extraordinarily simple. We are dealing with nothing other than what psychologists call from the outside conditioning. When a subject gives a conditioned response, what is happening from the phenomenological side is the attention switch I have named 'deflective attention'. That is to say, the subject has this experience: that his experiencing of event A itself causes his attention to shift to his experiencing of event B.

-page 22-

The philosopher, David Hume, has given the classical account of this process. His theory of causality is none other than a phenomenological analysis of attention deflection. I mean, he is describing what it is like to be the man undergoing the experience: what it is like to have that consciousness at that time.

To make clear the way attention deflection works I suggest we perform something like a Gedanken experiment (or thought experiment) in which the experiment is imagined to be conducted in a simplified universe. I want to use a model of deflective attention that will relate to the phenomenon itself much as an economic model relates to economic practice. Only remember this, the model operates in a simplified universe.

The first thing we need to know about our simplified universe is that its inhabitants possess the concept of a recurring event. The word 'event' can be used in at least two senses. In sense one of 'event' one and the same event can occur repeatedly: as in "The Indianapolis 500 is an event that occurs yearly." In sense two of "event" every event is unique and unrepeatable: as in "Every running of the Indianapolis 500 is a unique never-to-be-repeated event." Using the word "event" in sense one in my simplified universe I assume that a subject in the midst of this universe experiences an event more than once. We can then refer to these two experiences chronologically as follows. The subject can talk of the experience of event A as the experience of event A the second time around.

-page 23-

The object of the model is to explain how an experience becomes an attention deflector. We start with the scene in which the subject (myself) is experiencing event A the first time around. We further set the stage by directing that the experience in question be understood to occupy the place of projected consciousness in the subject's mind. Let us further specify that the subject is getting more and more deeply engrossed in the experiencing of event A. Now let us add the supposition that attention is abruptly taken from experiencing of event A by the interruption of the subject's experiencing of event B (a sudden shriek fills the room). Let us describe this supposition as interruption by an outside factor. The model now shows that the subject's attention has moved from experiencing of event A to experiencing of event B. But the mechanism of the movement is not attention deflection. Until the interruption of the outside factor the experience the first time around was engrossing attention. Then it was suddenly taken away by the outside factor: namely, experiencing of event B.

Now consider what memories it is logically possible for the subject to have. He can remember experiencing event A. He can remember the experiencing of event A being interrupted by experiencing of event B. He can remember the experiencing of event B. For short let us call "memory of experiencing event A" and "memory of experiencing event B" memory of A and B, respectively. The model now shows three possible memories.

-page 24-

  1. Memory of A;
  2. Memory of A interrupted by B;
  3. Memory of B.
Be it noted that the original attention shifts followed the order I have just given. Attention was first on A, then on the interruption of B, and finally on B itself.

Now let us come to the subject's experiencing of A the second time around. Attention is immediately deflected to the memory of A. This deflection to memory of A is known as recognition. But the deflection to memory of A causes a deflection to the memory of the interruption of A by B. The deflection from memory of A to memory of U was 'carried' so to speak by memory of A being interrupted by B in something like the way in which the middle term in a syllogism 'carries' us from premises to conclusion.

In our simplified universe there is no need to take it for granted that the sequence of memory deflections will follow the same chronological order as did the corresponding attention shifts of the sequence of the original experiences (those we came across the first time around). Suffice it to say that we have a closed circuit of three attention deflections. The subject can experience attention switches between these three possibilities in a succession of circuits with permutations in the order each time around. R. D. Laing has essentially described the process of attention deflections in his book Knots9

It is fascinating to see how the inductive process can be generated from such a succession of attention deflections. For notice that the second time around there is a deflection from memory of A to experiencing A again, but there is no equivalent

-page 25-

deflection from memory of B to experiencing B again. The lack of parity replaces the missing experience with a query: the deflection is to the thought of an unfulfilled possibility: the possibility being that just as experience of event A repeated itself, so too will experience of event B in due course repeat itself. Through a series of attention deflections, therefore, the subject's experiencing of event A the second time around causes the attention deflection to the anticipation of experience of event B occurring the second time around too.

The model makes clear why it is that experience of event A the second time around is different from experience of A the first time around in respect of the attention operation involved. The first time around, the experience was virginal, so to speak. The second time around, the experience is modified by the earlier experience, and the modification is one of turning the experience the second time around into an attention deflector instead of an attention focuser. Since the experience the second time around causes attention deflections that eventually lead to the deflection "anticipating a recurrence of experience of event B" it follows that the experiencing of event A the second time around enters unprojected consciousness. That is the difference in the experience the two times around. The experience in question shifts from projected consciousness to unprojected consciousness and a series of attention deflections to memories and anticipations fill the foreground in its place.

The important thing to grasp about this model is that it is experience and experience alone that turns experiencing of

-page 26-

event A into an attention deflector that switches attention to the experience of anticipating experience of event B the second time around.

The model of the conditions giving rise to deflective attention in a simplified universe was intended to make clear the logical difference between the experiencing of event A the first time around, and the experiencing of event A the second time around. The first time around the experiencing of event A is not deflecting attention, and the experiencing is in projected consciousness. The second time around the experiencing of event A is in unprojected consciousness and a succession of attention deflections to further experiences goes on. The situation the second time around, or the post experience experiencing of event A is the situation typifying a symbolic ASC.

Section Two

We form concepts out of repeatable attention deflections by closing circuits of attention deflections. One member of the circuit causes attention to deflect back to it. In order to make it clear that the sign is an attention deflector of phenomenological indistinguisability from the remainder of the set of attention deflections I shall call it the lead image. We may now describe it this way: A concept comes into being when a set of attention deflections is closed, and it is closed when one attention deflection deflects attention back to an earlier member of the set. I am envisioning a concept when I am in the process of experiencing a circuit of attention deflections that on a past occasion was closed by an attention deflection back to

-page 27-

an earlier member of the set. Now let us call the attention deflector that deflects attention back to the lead image the 'close'. It is now possible to see that the lead image could be 'returned to' by a number of different 'closes'. This means that when the lead image comes to be the attention deflector in turn, it will be multi-directional, switching attention to any of a number of possible closes. However, the reversal - close, lead image, close - becomes a new opening every time the lead image deflects attention from one close to another. The implication of this is that every time a concept is envisioned the chain of attention deflections is likely to make a somewhat different circuit from the one that resulted on the previous occasion on which the concept was envisioned. Most of the time we do not envision our concepts: we put them to use, and as we learn to apply them we learn to abbreviate the number of attention deflections by making attention deflection jumps, which in effect leave out sub-circuits. The opposite of this process occurs when one is asked to explain a concept. We try to 'deautomatize' by forcing the lead image to deflect attention to as yet untried, or rarely tried closes. We destructure the system and allow sub-circuits of attention deflections to flow freely. It should be noticed that each of these sub-circuits is a feedback loop, and the process of envisioning is a process of opening up more 'fine tune' feedback loops. Notice here the space this makes for creativity. If a concept is newly created every time it is envisioned the fact that on any occasion the lead image will nave a probability of deflecting attention to a yet untried

-page 28-

close has as its consequence the possibility of a novel specification of the concept: in other words a new concept - discovery. (See figure 2, directly below.)

Figure 2 -
Closed Circuit (i.e., envisioning a concept)

= events deflecting attention
= path of attention

N.B. An open sequence (see figure 1) becomes a closed circuit when the
last (the close) deflects attention back to the first .

It's at this point that I need to stop to make a rejoinder to Gilbert Ryle who says this:

Reporting one's thoughts is not a matter of merely chronicling the items of a procession of quick-fading internal phenomena. If we can pick out any such phenomena and record them, our record of them is not yet a statement of the drift or content of a piece of thinking. The way in which the widower's thinking of the roses was, in a way, thinking about his wife is not that during the time that he was thinking about the roses there occurred one or two very fleeting wafts of recollections of his wife. Such wafts do occur, but it was not them that he was acknowledging when he acknowledged that in thinking of the roses he had been incipiently thinking of his wife. 10

It is typical of much philosophical thinking of today to find these 'quick fading internal phenomena', as Ryle describes them, dismissed as completely of no consequence in the development of language and the understanding of concepts. My guess

-page 29-

is that a man like Ryle would not be satisfied with a mental image unless it had all the solidity and immovability of a portrait in the National Gallery. Consider however, if the prime function of a mental image is to be an attention deflector, then the more of a wafty quality it has the better: it really allows attention to be deflected by its 'background' quality. In fact, if 'quick fading internal phenomena' have the function of attention deflectors, that's exactly what you would expect them to be: 'quick fading'.

We envision a concept, then, when we run through a set of 'quick fading internal phenomena' that are concatenated in a chain-like structure with the property that each deflects attention to its neighbor. Such a chain is an instantiation of a concept when the front of the chain (the close) links up with the beginning of the chain (the lead image). In this context think again of Ryle's description of 'fleeting wafts of recollections of his wife', only this time think of these wafts as recurrences of the lead image of the chain 'widower's thoughts of his dead wife'. The lead image pops up from time to time as a subcircuit is closed, and another opened. This is the manner in which attention is kept concentrated on a theme. We call the lead image the symbol for the concept since it is that which concentrates attention on the experience of envisioning the concept. It is the link in the chain to which, directly or indirectly, all the other links in the chain are linked. It follows from its function that the lead image is of a higher logical order than are other attention deflections. We can envision orders of attention deflectors depending on their power

-page 30-

to switch on greater or lesser circuits of attention deflectors.

These are our higher-order concepts.

NOTE: The two figures show (a) an open sequence of events deflecting attention (i.e., day dreaming) and (b) a closed circuit of events deflecting attention (i.e., envisioning a concept). An open sequence becomes a closed sequence when the last deflected event (the close) deflects attention back to the first event (the lead).

-page 31-

Section Three

Up to this point I have been considering the diametrically opposed ASC's symbolic consciousness and non-symbolic consciousness as purely logical possibilities, but now I want to say something about them as potential forms of living, or experiments in living. Suppose we spent our lives in symbolic ASC's for instance, what would that matter? Many thinkers for instance think that with the development of symbolic consciousness we fell into humanness. The birth of homo sapiens is also the severance of the umbilical cord that unites the rest of the animal kingdom in nature. This severance is felt as the curse of man. Lawrence Durrell describes it perfectly: "buggerish mentation".

Using the concept of deflective attention it is possible to state what this type of thinking is driving at. In terms of it we can understand symbolic consciousness as consisting of sequences of attention deflections. When R. D. Laing describes people as operating with false self systems, or phantasy structures, these structures may be understood as built out of chains of attention deflections and held together by nexi known as stereotypes. These attention deflections preoccupy the mind, as it follows attention deflection after attention deflection creating as it does the stream of consciousness. As a result we live in our heads and let the world pass us by. "The world" becomes nothing but a sequence of attention deflectors, and at best our awareness of it remains at the level of subsidiary awareness. We miss, we overlook, we ignore, we take

-page 32-

for granted, contact with the living present. The living present sinks to the level of an attention deflector. We might as well not be in it for all the difference it makes to us. Our attention is elsewhere, we are preoccupied, off in a place of our own. We struggle to bring ourselves back. We long to gain contact disinterestedly with everything that is taking place around us; to feel the throb of life outside our own skins. And a non-symbolic consciousness beckons us as the back door we had missed in our mind-filled search. If we could but stop the ceaseless sequence of attention deflections, we think, reality would leap into focus as a fly brought into focus under a microscope. We would be in touch with things as they are, not as they reflect themselves in our web of attention deflections.

The way out would appear to lie in the direction of first becoming aware of the attention deflections we run through, and when that point is achieved, attempting to gain control over the direction of the attention deflections. I think of the ideas of great philosophers as attention deflections brought under control by an individual mind. The final control would come when attention deflections can be shut off altogether at will. By so doing we hope to regain that contact with reality that is the ease of life.


Notes and references

1. "Homo Symbolicus, a Definition of Man." Edward Henderson. Man and World Vol. 4 No. 2 May 1971).
back to text

2. Ibid., p. 133.
back to text

3. The Subject of Consciousness, C.O. Evans (London, 1970), pp. 79-81.
back to text

4. Altered States of Consciousness, Ed. Charles T. Tart (New York, 1972), pp. 1-2.
back to text

5. My distinction between projected and unprojected consciousness is parallel to the distinction between focal attention and subsidiary awareness which is central to the thought of Michael Polanyi Cf. Personal Knowledge, Michael Polanyi. New York, 1958), p. 92.
back to text

6. An Introduction to Wittgenstein's Tractatus, Anscombe (London, 1959), p. 65 ff.
back to text

7. Being and Nothingness, Jean Paul Sartre (London, 1957).
back to text

8. The Way of Zen, Alan Watts (New York, 1957), P. 131.
back to text

9. Knots, R.D. Laing (New York 1970).
back to text

10. "A Puzzling Element in the Notion of Thinking," G. Ryle. reprinted in Studies in the Philosophy of Thought and Action, ed. By P.F. Strawson (London, 1968), p. 19.
back to text