Suppose I fix my gaze on an object, say a flower. Without moving my eyes, keeping them fixed on the flower, so with the same exact visual experience, I can "direct my attention" towards something far out in the periphery of my visual field. In some sense, my eyes can be looking at one thing directly, and my mind can be looking at another.

Is it understood what happens in the brain to make this possible? Is this an instance of what philosophers of consciousness would call "intentionality"? Does this have a specific term attached to it?

  • "Without moving my eyes" eyes move a lot outside of our control. In fact, they are unable to capture your whole vision field in one go, and have to scan it while your brain recomposes the image (hence a lot of visual tricks). I would not be surprised if they actually moved according to your attention in the scenario you are describing.
    – armand
    Jun 16, 2021 at 2:35
  • 1
    Even if they move and shift ever so slightly, it still remains that I am able to direct "my mind's focus" well outside of what a 3rd party observer would say is the focus of my visual experience (if they had access to it).
    – Mark
    Jun 16, 2021 at 3:09
  • I am quite sure a third party with the proper material, like the type of camera used to follow unconscious eye moves, could tell what you are concentrating on. At least it's worth investigating before drawing metaphysical conclusions
    – armand
    Jun 16, 2021 at 4:41
  • The assumption that attention targets the same object as what the eyes focus is just fallacious. Remove the assumption and the question becomes void.
    – RodolfoAP
    Jun 7, 2022 at 20:14

2 Answers 2


The phenomenon in question is part of attention, specifically endogenous orienting, or willful focusing of cognitive capacities on particular stimuli or sensory regions (of body or environment). From Wikipedia:

Orienting attention is vital and can be controlled through external (exogenous) or internal (endogenous) processes.

The first aspect is called bottom-up processing, also known as stimulus-driven attention or exogenous attention. These describe attentional processing which is driven by the properties of the objects themselves. Some processes, such as motion or a sudden loud noise, can attract our attention in a pre-conscious, or non-volitional way. We attend to them whether we want to or not.

The second aspect is called top-down processing, also known as goal-driven, endogenous attention, attentional control or executive attention. This aspect of our attentional orienting is under the control of the person who is attending.

A related phenomenon is that of attentional shift. From Wikipedia:

Attentional shift (or shift of attention) occurs when directing attention to a point increases the efficiency of processing of that point and includes inhibition to decrease attentional resources to unwanted or irrelevant inputs. [...] Changes in spatial attention can occur with the eyes moving, overtly, or with the eyes remaining fixated, covertly. [...] Prior to an overt eye movement, where the eyes move to a target location, covert attention shifts to this location. However, it is important to keep in mind that attention is also able to shift covertly to objects, locations, or even thoughts while the eyes remain fixated.

A more specific focus is on visual attention control. From Wikipedia:

The spatial separation between two objects has an effect on attention. People can selectively pay attention to one of two objects in the same general location. Research has also been done on attention to non-object based things like motion. When directing attention to a feature like motion, neuronal activity increases in areas specific for the feature. [...] When people are told to look for motion, then motion will capture their attention, but attention is not captured by motion if they are told to look for color. [...] According to fMRI studies of the brain and behavioral observations, visual attention can be moved independently of moving eye position. Studies have had participants fixate their eyes on a central point and measured brain activity as stimuli were presented outside the visual fixation point. fMRI findings show changes in brain activity correlated with the shift in spatial attention to the various stimuli.

On the question of whether endogenous orienting of attention is an example of intentionality, I would argue yes, for the following reasons:

  • This type of focus is top-down, or executive in nature, hence being intentional.

  • Objects or parts of objects perceived presumably exist in both material and mental senses.

  • The experience has both content (mask, image, affect) and mode (vision).


Whenever you are trying to do something - achieve an objective, optimize for some outcome - you are acting intentionally. If you are trying to keep your eyes fixed while directing your attention to the periphery of your visual field, those are two things you are trying to do at once, so certainly you are acting intentionally.

To think of intentional action, the image that comes to mind is a U-shaped parabola, or valley. Intentional action is a process that seeks the low point of the valley, the minimum of the parabola. (Or equivalently the high point of a mountain or maximum of an inverted parabola). Intention is optimization.

You have an objective, you score how good you think different actions will be towards achieving the objective, and you select the action that maximizes the score. This is what seems the "best" action to you at the time that you act. The process of choosing that "best" action, based on your objective and your beliefs at the time, is intention.

  • What is this parabola mapping? Goal vs attention/effort?
    – CriglCragl
    Jun 7, 2022 at 20:39
  • @CriglCragl In ML terms it's a loss function, or the negative of an objective function - it maps policy on the x-axis, to shortfall from the ideal goal on the y-axis. Finding the optimal policy is finding the policy that minimizes the parabola.
    – causative
    Jun 7, 2022 at 23:58
  • I don't feel it's very clear. Can you give an example case where someone has graphed like that?
    – CriglCragl
    Jun 8, 2022 at 0:15
  • @CriglCragl you can look at towardsdatascience.com/… , or to see just an image look at i.stack.imgur.com/MuYS8.jpg . (Often loss is visualized with a 3d function as above instead of a 2d parabola, which is a bit fancier but not essentially different).
    – causative
    Jun 8, 2022 at 0:23

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