Attention is not just another “function” alongside other cognitive functions. Its ontological status is of something prior to functions and even to things. The kind of attention we bring to bear on the world changes the nature of the world we attend to, the very nature of the world in which those “functions” would be carried out and in which those “things” would exist. Attention changes what kind of a thing comes into being for us: in that way it changes the world. If you are my friend, the way in which I attend to you will be different from the way in which I would attend to you if you were my employer, my patient, the suspect in a crime I am investigating, my lover, my aunt, a body waiting to be dissected. In all these circumstances, except the last, you will also have a quite different experience not just of me, but of yourself: you would feel changed if I changed the type of my attention. And yet nothing objectively has changed.
So it is, not just with the human world, but with everything with which we come into contact. A mountain that is a landmark to a navigator, a source of wealth to a prospector, a many-textured form to a painter, or to another the dwelling place of the gods, is changed by the attention given to it. There is no “real” mountain that can be distinguished from these, no one way of thinking that reveals the true mountain.
Science, however, purports to be uncovering such a reality. Its apparently value-free descriptions are assumed to deliver the truth about the object, onto which our feelings and desires are later painted. Yet this highly objective stance, this “view from nowhere,” to use the American philosopher Thomas Nagel’s phrase, is itself value-laden. It is just one particular way of looking at things, a way that privileges detachment, a lack of commitment of the viewer to the object viewed. For some purposes this can be undeniably useful. But its use in such causes does not make it truer or more real, closer to the nature of things.
Attention also changes who we are, we who are doing the attending. Our knowledge of neurobiology and neuropsychology shows that by attending to someone else performing an action, and even by thinking about them doing so—even, in fact, by thinking about certain sorts of people at all—we become objectively, measurably, more like them, in how we behave, think, and feel. Through the direction and nature of our attention, we prove ourselves to be partners in creation, both of the world and of ourselves. In keeping with this, attention is inescapably bound up with value—unlike what we conceive of as “cognitive functions,” which are neutral in this respect. Values enter through the way in which those functions are exercised: they can be used in different ways for different purposes to different ends. Attention, however, intrinsically is a way in which, not a thing: it is intrinsically a relationship, not a brute fact. It is a “howness,” a something between, an aspect of consciousness itself, not a “whatness,” a thing in itself, an object of consciousness. It brings into being a world and, with it, depending on its nature, a set of values.
From The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, Yale University Press, 2009. Reprinted with permission of the author.