What we pay attention to is what we learn to predict.

Our predictions (the metric by which we validate our models, our understanding) in turn guide our attention.

Has anyone done any work on this interaction? Are there any papers, mathematical models? What does the neuroscience or neuro philosophers say about it? Are there even just musings somewhere on this, seemingly most fundamental self-referential relationship of the mind?

I've given this some thought for some time but I feel like I'm on an island, where can I go to connect with others that have given this lots of thought?

  • “Protention/retention” is language that might help you find phenomenological resources? – Joseph Weissman May 4 '18 at 20:36
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    (Roughly, protention is expectancy/prediction of stimulus) – Joseph Weissman May 4 '18 at 20:43
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    Possibly related? – Canyon May 4 '18 at 20:56
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    Ha ha, I've just finished reading this probably seminal paper. It is highly technical and concerns machine learning rather than the mind but seems to me to be closely related to your question: arxiv.org/abs/1406.6247 – nir May 5 '18 at 19:01
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    I was listening to Charles Murray talk about hidden motives, and draw insight from patients who have had their brain hemispheres disconnected. The two halves have specialised roles somewhat like predictor of our world and generator of identity in it (attention). As revealed by pathologies neuro.psychiatryonline.org/doi/abs/10.1176/… – CriglCragl May 9 '18 at 22:06

I think you can find ideas along these lines in the 'embodied cognition' or 'embedded cognition' views on mind and cognition: these views stress the interaction with the environment as basic. That is, on these views the brain is not so much seen as a disembodied calculator, as it is seen as a very powerful controller. Put differently yet: perception and action are not 'relegated' to 'mere' peripheral input and output devices, but rather our perceptuo-motor abilities are key to our understanding of our mental and cognitive abilities ... and yes, as such, attention and perception are two key components. Just google and plenty will come up.

If you want a specific reference, I think the works by the philosopher of mind Andy Clark are highly insightful and very accessible. Another easy read is 'On Intelligence' by Jeff Hawkins; that book also stresses the central role of prediction.


This is another way of expressing the "Theory-ladenness of observation", which is one of the central points of post-modernism. So a large quantity has been written, but it is often expressed from various viewpoints that are hard to follow. It is often more clearly obvious in experimental results in the modern psychology of perception.

You may want to start with early forms, then skip the middle part full of pretentiously thick prose, and leave philosophy for psychology. Two of the simplest expressions of this principle within philosophy are commonly expressed here: 1) in the arguments of late Wittgenstein and Quine and 2) in the models of science due to Popper and Kuhn.

It is directly related to Wittgenstein's notion of the complementarity of usage and meaning through the 'game' that coordinates them. Meaning predicts how others will understand us. Usage is all we can see. We harmonize the two via experimentation with what forms of expression win or lose other's attention and agreement.

Some viewpoints in semiotics propose that this is the underlying model for all knowledge. Since everything we know is somehow expressed or represented -- to ourselves in memory, if not to others in language -- 'usage' and 'meaning' do not have to be restricted to the notion of language. The model can apply to experience in general.

Good science meeting Popper's demarcation criterion reiterates this form. Another way of expressing his notion of falsifiability is that we cannot learn anything scientifically without making predictions and being aware of how those predictions may or may not fail. This is often because it is very hard to see failures that we can conceivably predict, so the notion of failure is itself also a prediction, and it is possible to totally miss the point and to defend presumptions that are too deeply ingrained.

Relevant psychological data include that we begin to react to most things before we are aware of them. So prediction precedes attention. And that memories are quite mutable, so attention is selective -- by one dominant theory, it only every contains confirmed predictions, and all the rest is created ad hoc. But I will not elaborate these, because you can get better information in the SEs on psychology, cognition and the other social sciences.

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