Attention with a Narrow Focus

Volume 1. No. 5

Attention with a Narrow Focus


July 20, 2017

By George Gillespie



The author finds his attention to be narrowly focused. In the literature on autism and Asperger Syndrome, monotropism is described as a narrow focus of attention, a focus on parts rather than the whole, and difficulty understanding the whole picture. The term “weak central coherence” indicates a difficulty in integrating the narrow focus with the wider context. The author finds his attention functions largely as discussed in this literature, but he critiques the various discussions. He describes how his attention works in the context of visual perception, disruptions of attention, sensory overload, attention deficit, the intensification of attention, and seeing nonperceptual imagery. An analysis of his attention while seeing hypnopompic geometric imagery brings out insights into how his attention works during perception.


Attention with a Narrow Focus

By George Gillespie

Part I

Attention in Daily Life

I have never driven a car without fear. I was 31 when I first got my driver’s license. If I even knew at any time that five weeks later I might be obligated to drive someone somewhere, I would be anxious for those five weeks. If I could avoid driving for months or even years, I did so. The inconvenience and embarrassment of not driving were preferable to the anxiety of driving and especially preferable to near-misses and some hits with garage walls, pedestrians, and (in India) rickshaws. Getting past this stage of anxiety always seemed to be beyond reach.

When my mother lived about six miles from us, I felt that I should be the one to go bring her when she came to visit. The road between was already confusing enough, with its share of traffic, stop lights, and, from my point of view, a lot to pay attention to. I remember clearly what happened when my mother would begin to talk to me in the car. My attention was suddenly captured by my mother’s talking, and I could not think of what I needed to do next as the car moved on and traffic shifted around me. I was derailed. In any driving situation, when I intended to press on the brake or turn the car, my attention withdrew from everything else in order to do so. Even so, it didn’t occur to me through the years that I might be different from other people. Others manage to drive and some even to enjoy it. How did they get over this problem?

Monotropism and Weak Central Coherence

Eventually, I found various descriptions of how attention in those with autism and Asperger Syndrome (AS) differs from what is considered typical. Some talk about this difference in terms of “monotropism” (see especially Bogdashina, 2003; Murray, ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Lesser, & Lawson, 2005), and some talk about weak central coherence (see especially Frith, 2003; Happé, 2005). In spite of the differences in vocabulary and implied theory, the discussions of monotropism and weak central coherence seem to focus on the problems I have with attention.

According to Olga Bogdashina, someone with monotropism has very narrowly focused attention and attends to only one sense modality at a time. Therefore, one sees the world analytically and in parts rather than holistically (Bogdashina, 2003). There may be an inability to filter out excessive information and a vulnerability to sensory overload (Bogdashina, 2003). It is said that often in autism, one’s attention is focused on unusual or minor details rather than on important details (Frith, 2003; Tsatsanis, 2005). As Juanita P. Lovett also says, “Adults with AS seem to mostly approach the world detail by detail” (2005, p. 81). The person tends to be either passionately interested in (attentive to) something or not interested at all (Murray et al, 2005) and/or focused so intently on something of interest that he or she may not notice anything else (Lovett (2005). When several people are talking at the same time, it is difficult for the listener to direct attention to one voice (Bogdashina, 2003).

Central coherence is described as a force within a person that pulls together large amounts of information (Frith, 2003). Weak central coherence is a “preference for piecemeal, local information” and the “unusual ability to disregard context” (Frith, 2003, p. 154). Uta Frith and Francesca Happé both see weak central coherence as having a positive and a negative side. “Weak central coherence predicts relatively good performance where attention to local information (i.e., relatively piecemeal processing) is advantageous, but poor performance on tasks requiring the recognition of global meaning or integration of stimuli in context” (Happé, 2005, p. 641). The relationship of the monotropism discussion to weak central coherence is that while monotropic attention focuses on parts, details, and the narrow aspect, the parts, details, and the narrow aspect do not cohere into a wider whole. My impression is that the narrowness of attention applies to many contexts, for example, the literal narrowness of visual attention, the narrow focus of one’s actions, the narrowness of one’s preferences, and the narrowness of one’s esoteric special interests.

Visual Attention

Philosophers and scientists of various sorts discuss how attention typically works, while experts in the autism spectrum describe how attention works differently for people with autism and AS. How typically or untypically my attention works in particular circumstances, I cannot always know. Because philosophers and scientists often disagree with one another, do not use a common terminology, and, at times, do not seem to say well what they want to say, I will need to say things in my own way as I try to describe here how my attention works.

I will first talk about how my attention works while I am awake with my eyes open, which includes being aware of all the senses and of body experience. Secondly, I want to consider what I have learned about visual attention in my experiences of hypnopompic lattice imagery, that is, what I have seen and attended to with my eyes shut, since that also seems to be worthwhile.

Discussions of attention within autism tend to focus largely on how one’s attention works with vision. Some theorists of attention do not distinguish between visual perception and visual attention. James J. Gibson (1986) considers that perception itself is an act of attention. Ulric Neisser (1976) also claims that no separate mechanism of visual attention exists and only the attended episode is seen.

However, other theorists believe that attention is to be distinguished from perception (e.g. Chalmers, 1996; McGinn, 2004; Searle, 1992; Tye, 1996). Colin McGinn writes, “If you focus your attention on a portion of your visual field, the rest does not disappear; it hovers unattended.” (2004, p. 26). That is the way it is for me. Although I see all that is within my visual field, I look directly at and see most precisely the small area around the point of focus of my visual attention. I’ll call that point the center of the visual field, for reasons that will become clear. I can gather details from what I have centered my attention on—details of color, visual form, spatial relationships, movement, contrast, or implications—or I may just watch or enjoy what I see there. The rest of the visual field, which lies away from the center, I see only indirectly, with rapidly increasing lack of clarity the farther it lies from the center. 

In a discussion of weak central coherence and monotropism within the autism spectrum, Tony Attwood writes

A useful metaphor to understand this aspect of weak central coherence is to imagine rolling a piece of paper into a tube and closing one eye, placing the tube against the open eye like a telescope, and looking at the world through the tube: details are visible, but the context is not perceived. (2007, p. 241)

The tube metaphor does not exactly describe how my visual attention works. As I move my attention around the world that I see, my visual attention remains narrowly focused on the center of the visual field, probably as narrowly as the tube metaphor suggests, but I am not blind outside of my area of attention. I continue to see a full visual field, and the world that I perceive around my focus gives what I focus on a full, though not visually detailed, spatial context---a context, in any case, that I might already have become familiar with or at least I have already seen. If I want to see other details clearly, I need to move my eyes and possibly my head to scan what I see, to place other details in the center of the visual field, which is where my attention remains.

Bogdashina mentions monotropic individuals who compare their attentional pattern with having a laser beam directed at one point, which they see clearly “while everything around it is grey and fuzzy” (2003, p. 102). Whether or not the grey fuzziness is the way it is for others, I do not see the world that surrounds the focus of my attention as gray. I do not detect a loss of colors. My focal point continues to have a recognizable visual continuity with the lack of clarity that immediately surrounds it.

In any case, the tube and laser beam metaphors do suggest that those with monotropism have, as Bogdashina says, “very narrowly focused attention” (2003, p. 102). They prefer parts to wholes (Attwood, 2007) and give “unusual attention to detail” (Baron-Cohen, 2003, p. 180). They “often fixate on minor features of the environment but ignore more important ones” (Frith, 2003, p. 171).        These statements, for the most part, sound correct in my case.

The Spatial Distribution of Attention

I should introduce the work of the fovea here. The cones of the retina, which mediate day (or color) vision, are especially concentrated in the fovea, a central area at the back of the retina of each eye, and the fovea is responsible for the concentration of the finest details at the focal point during perception. In binocular vision, there is also a fused binocular image and depth perception in the center (Hubel, 1988). Therefore, my central area of attention coincides with the area of finest detail created by the foveae. During visual perception, the farther out we go from the center, “our acuity falls off progressively” (Hubel, 1988).

Because the center of the visual field is the only point that I look directly at and center my attention on, I’m not looking anywhere else within the visual field, although I see it. It is, in fact, difficult to look elsewhere. I can look in only one direction at a time, which is the center. When I try to attend to any detail away from the center without moving my eyes, I can only notice something obvious, like a flashing light, movement, or a large contrast in size or color. 

In a study carried out by Caroline E. Robertson, Dwight J. Kravitz, Jan Freyberg, Simon Baron-Cohen, and Chris I. Baker (2013), it was demonstrated that individuals in the autism spectrum have a more enhanced perception of detail at the focus of attention and a faster fall-off of acuity with increased distance from the focus compared with those without autism. The severity of this rapid fall-off of attention increases with the severity of the autism. To some extent, this finding seems comparable to the observation by Murray et al. that within the attention tunnel there tends to be hyper-awareness and outside the attention tunnel, there tends to be hypo-awareness (2005).  However, Robertson et al.’s concept of a spatial gradient of attention across the visual field, even the autistic person’s “sharper spatial gradient,” appears to contrast somewhat with Murray et al.’s concept of being either inside or outside the attention tunnel.

An attempt to examine the size of my visual attention seems called for. I realize that this is a difficult thing to measure, particularly if visual attention does not have a precise boundary. Nevertheless, I will focus my attention somewhere within a text, and, while maintaining my fixation, try to determine the extent of the area in which I remain aware of the detail of the text without shifting my gaze. Beyond that area will lie what I need to move my eyes to see clearly.  I can make no judgment related to a gradient of attention across the visual field. My observations only tell me about what is within and without my area of attention.

I find that by keeping my attention on the word “eye” within a text of 10 pt. type at reading distance, I discern the spatial details of the three letters and understand the meaning of the word. When I look at the longer word “unusually,” I need to move my attention across the word in order to discern the details of all the letters. Keeping my eyes still, I see in detail only that part of the word that has the size of the word “eye.” On the other hand, I can move my attention around the letter y in either word and settle on one of the serifs at the tips of the y and keep my attention there.

As I reflected on the analysis of my attention to the word “eye,” I decided I should try something similar within an unfamiliar, complex context. At the web site for the World Journal, which is a Chinese newspaper, I found a page written in Chinese characters and I printed it out. Each printed character is 1/8 inch squared and most characters contain a complex combination of relatively long and short lines within that. I do not read Chinese and if I look at one character, nothing looks familiar and no meaning comes to mind.

I chose a part of one of the more complex Chinese characters, perhaps one fifth of the whole character, and directed my attention to it. I was able to attend to the part without moving my eyes and without attentive awareness reaching outside that part of the character. I then tried to center my attention on the character as a whole in a similar manner, keeping all of its parts in mind, and I could not. I could only move my attention around on the character as a way of attending to all its detail.

Because the serif of the y is connected with the word “eye” by continuity of form and meaning, I am aware of the whole word while I concentrate on the serif. With the Chinese characters, I do not discern clearly beyond the attended part of the character, because I discern no continuity, only an unfamiliar complexity. Nothing ties the rest of the character to my limited area of attention. Familiarity seems to slightly broaden the area of focused attention.

Tania A. Mann and Peter Walker (2003) discuss the broadening, changing, or adjusting the spatial spread of attention, or, said differently, the “zooming out” of attention. I wasn’t aware that anyone could change the size of their attention “field.” Perhaps I broaden my attention when I first keep my attention on the serif and then on the whole word “eye.” In any case, I am never aware of details very far from the center of the visual field.

Whatever the visual narrowness of my attention, it is true that small things, parts of things, and details attract my attention. When our car stops at a traffic light, I look from the passenger seat and examine the nails in the fence near me. As we move on, I am attracted to the little yellow flags along the side of the road marking the gas line. I am not conscious of preferring smaller details to larger. Perhaps, it would be more correct to say, not that I am attracted to details, but that the size of my field of attention encloses small details more easily than it encloses anything of size. Therefore I notice details more. Of course my attention does not remain stationary and with looking around, I can notice a larger context.

In ordinary looking, I see but largely do not notice what I do not attend to, unless it is large, moving, flashing, or obvious in some way. As I search on the kitchen table for something, my attention goes from one box or bottle to another sitting nearby, and I do not find what I want. As it turns out, what I wanted was on the table closely surrounded by the things that I had looked at directly. What I wanted was fully in view, but I did not look directly at it, so I missed finding it. It is as though all of my focusing of attention, even when moving around, remains as narrow and restricted as when I remain still and concentrate on something.

I select what I want to look at by placing it in the center of the visual field. I do not choose to keep my attention narrow. I normally just choose what I want to look at, without intentionally rejecting or filtering out all the rest. My attention seems to consistently work that way. What I attend to, either by choice or force, is what I notice. What I do not attend to I tend not to notice.

One Attentional Focus at a Time

Monotropic attention is sometimes spoken of as attention to only one sensory modality at a time (Bogdashina, 2003) or using one channel at a time (Lovett, 2005). So that, “while his vision is on, the person might lose awareness of any information coming through other senses. Thus, while the person sees something, he does not hear anything, and does not feel touch, etc.” (Bogdashina, 2003, p. 83). There is a sense in which this is true for me, but not completely. While watching something, I may not notice that someone spoke to me or that the cat brushed against my leg. However, I did hear that person talk and I did feel the cat move against my leg, even though I did not notice it. I may notice it soon after the fact with a kind of delayed attention, but not necessarily. I do not perceive (see, hear, feel) only one thing at a time; I can attend to only one thing at a time within a widely perceived world.

To be precise, I would say that my attention normally focuses on either one modality or one part of a modality (visual, hearing, or touch), at a time. While I pay visual attention to one thing, I generally cannot attend to anything else within the visual field or within my experience. If there is one thing to hear, I can focus on it. If multiple sounds compete, I have difficulty attending to any part of it. As for paying attention to more than one thing at a time, I was sitting and telling a story to people at a picnic and wanted to lay down my empty glass on the lawn next to my chair. I had to completely stop talking so that I could pay attention to setting down the glass.

Missing the Whole

A large part of my problem with driving a car is that, although perceptual-body experience forms a whole of experience for me—it is all there—I do not hold it in mind together as a whole. I do not add two and two to make four, seems to be the best way to say it. What I attend to does not seem to take into account the context, and any new centering of attention tends to replace any previous one without the two sticking together. I am not able to keep in mind all the parts of what I see, feel, and hear happening along with their implications. This seems to be exactly what Frith (2003), Happé (2005), and others call “weak central coherence.” If I hear a talk or sermon, or even a conversation, presuming I can keep my attention on it, although I may understand parts as it moves along, it does not form a whole for me. If someone asks me what the sermon or story was about, I may recall pieces of it, but I rarely can say what the gist was.

A different kind of missing the whole is with car recognition. Although I do not seem to have face blindness, I do have what I interpret as car blindness. I do not mean just a problem with knowing makes and models. I do not even recognize our own car except by its parts—mainly its color (fortunately, it’s red), license plate, and a magnetic sticker on the back.

Disruptions of Attention and Sensory Overload

Loud noise and the competition of sounds seem to be for me the most frequent causes of disruption of attention and sensory overload. I cannot talk or listen on the telephone if there is talking or noise nearby. If someone talks to me while I am watching television, the television and the talking compete, and I catch neither. It is not just loud sounds that compete for my attention. Low sounds do also. When we were at a class reunion in a hotel, I was asked to give the prayer before the meal, but I stood there unable to say anything until someone was able to find out how to shut off the very low piped-in music. Another time I was teaching a class, but the muffled sound of a class going on in the next room distracted me completely. For forty-five minutes I could not focus on what I wanted to say, even though I had my notes. I fought against derailment unsuccessfully. The stress left me very disturbed for at least a day.

Most times when I am disturbed hearing sound and fury or loud music, I do not have a meltdown. However, sometimes I do, and the tendency appears to be increasing. Once I was in a visually busy, noisy conference display room, with the auditorium program loudly piped in. Some workers began to slosh pine oil across the floor. I became restless, hyperventilated, and fought off crying. I had to leave the building. The disturbed feeling stayed with me for hours. Sometimes the music in church reaches meltdown quality. When such noise and confusion happens, I know that it all disturbs me, but the meltdown itself seems to sneak up on me before I realize what is happening.

Eyes obviously looking at my face, especially when they are nearby, can also be very disruptive. This must be why, without my thinking about it, I have always looked at the mouth instead of the eyes of people talking to me. If it becomes obvious that someone is looking at my eyes or face, I spontaneously turn my head (usually down) and struggle not to lose my train of thought. A bout with someone’s eyes can upset me for a while.

Attention Deficit and Attention Intensity

As explained by Attwood, the person with Attention Deficit Disorder has difficulty in sustaining attention. However, “[w]ith Asperger’s Syndrome there can be a wide range of attention span that is short when involved with social activities but remarkably long when the child [or adult] is interested in the topic” (Attwood, 1998, p. 147). When my thinking or my work or the discussion deals with what interests me most, which is the phenomenological analysis of vision, dreaming, mysticism and such internal things (see Gillespie, 1990, 1997, 2014), I can maintain my attention endlessly or, unfortunately, talk about my subject endlessly without noticing the time. Murray et al. refers to this as a “monotropic interest” (2005). When the matter is not of interest to me, I believe that “attention deficit” describes the situation. I find it difficult to stop giving my attention to the reading, writing, or conversation concerning what interests me. It feels like an inability to let go of what I am doing. However, when someone is talking to me, in just ordinary conversation, I am often thinking of something else. I am a poor listener.

My attention to details and the narrow focus of my interests seem to have influenced at times my choice of subjects to write about. My first project in writing about mysticism was to choose a key twelve-word sentence from an author’s book and analyze it. The result was a twelve-page journal article analyzing the one sentence (Gillespie, 1983). Later, I heard someone respond to the article with, in so many words, “I sure wouldn’t want someone to write an article critiquing one sentence of mine.”       

Part II

Visual Attention with Nonperceptual Imagery

For years, I have been writing introspective analyses of my visual experiences during hypnopompic geometric imagery, lucid dreaming, waking perception, and experiences of light (for example, Gillespie, 1989, 1990, 1997, 2009). When I began to write about how my attention works in varieties of visual experience, I realized that such an analysis may be complicated by the possibility that my attention varies too much from the typical to be helpful as a general description of attention. Therefore, it seemed appropriate for me to include such an analysis in an article more like this one. It also became clear to me that the study of how my visual attention works when my eyes are shut might be useful towards understanding how it works when my eyes are open. Thus I include Part II, in which I deal with visual attention while seeing the lattice form of hypnopompic imagery, which is the imagery that I have learned the most from.

I will describe my experience based on at least 88 appearances of hypnopompic lattice imagery. During the brighter mornings of spring and summer of 1985 and 1986 (and thereafter, a few times until 1990), I frequently saw lattice patterns and related imagery across my visual field while waking up. When I first woke up, my eyes were shut, and there was always darkness briefly after seeing a dream and before seeing the lattice. When I decided to check whether there was any imagery to see, I felt my eyes make a slight adjustment. The adjustment appeared to be a preparation for directing my visual attention to the darkness. Of course, I did not use my eyes to see any imagery or darkness, because any image or darkness is internal and not to be seen by means of the retinas. Nor would there be any binocular imagery to fuse together. Nevertheless, it seems, my eyes prepared for looking at something. Then I looked at my visual field and I would see the image if one were there.

When I saw a pattern, I examined it by scanning it, that is, by moving my eyes. I saw that the pattern most often filled the visual field and continued in every direction as far as I could move my eyes. That wider scannable area I came to call “the visual surface.” The pattern itself never moved or changed, but was fixed in location within the limits of my eye movement. Although I did not see the pattern by means of my eyes, I had to move my eyes to scan the pattern.

Figure 1. One variety of a chessboard lattice image filling the round elementary visual field.


The most common pattern was chessboard design, one kind of which is shown in Figure 1. The simple crossing of vertical and horizontal lines or columns was the second most common. Least common was a field of contiguous hexagons, either horizontal-topped or vertical-sided. Except for the hexagon patterns, the lattices were of such a variety, that I may never have seen exactly the same pattern twice. Although I refer to my imagery as “hypnopompic,” meaning that I saw it upon waking up, this type of imagery is also mentioned by R. K. Siegel and M. E. Jarvik (1975) as a variety of drug-induced elementary hallucinatory forms. My imagery came without the help of drugs. Roger N. Shepard (1978, 1990) describes and illustrates his own similar lattice imagery, which appeared to him upon awakening or during the night.

The patterns remained visible for somewhere between three to ten minutes, after which they faded away to the customary closed-eye darkness. Their delayed disappearance gave me time to scan and analyze them. What I have observed about how my attention works with lattice imagery, I have observed with other types of nonperceptual imagery also—such as with hypnopompic oscillating imagery and visual migraine auras, so that I have no reason to believe that my attention worked in any unique way with lattice imagery. I have no way of knowing how my attention with lattice imagery compares with what may be typical among other people or with what is commonly found within the autism spectrum. Nevertheless, what I saw told me a lot.

Figure 2. Relative sizes and shapes of visual fields and visual surface: Number 1 shows the monocular visual field. Number 2 shows the visual field when both eyes are open. Number 3 shows the visual field for elementary imagery, such as geometric and related imagery as seen in hypnopompic or hallucinatory experience, when the structure of the head does not limit the size of the visual field. The plus sign shows the center of both the perceptual and the elementary visual field, where directed visual attention is centered. Number 4 shows the visual surface, the total area that is scannable when the eyes are moved. During the scanning of lattice patterns, the elementary visual field (number 3) moves over the visual surface (number 4). An earlier version of this figure appeared in Gillespie (2009).


The Center of the Circle

When I opened my eyes while seeing a lattice image, I could see clearly both the lattice pattern and my bedroom. The two views were complete. I found that the focal point of my looking at the bedroom coincided with the focal point for my looking at the lattice. That is, my attentional center for seeing both the lattice and my room was the same.

Eventually I noticed that when the lattice filled the visual field, as it usually did, its visual field was larger than the perceptual visual field. In Figure 2, I compare the sizes and shapes of the visual fields and the visual surface. My illustration can only be an estimate; I cannot possibly be precise. The area with the number 1 inside it indicates roughly the shape and relative size of the monocular visual field, that is, the size of the visual field when one eye is open. Area 2 shows the roughly oval shape of the binocular visual field during perception. In contrast, the visual field of lattice imagery and of largely all nonrepresentational, elementary (geometrical and related) imagery of any kind is shown by area 3, which includes areas 1 and 2. This larger visual field (area 3), which I call the elementary visual field, is perfectly round, unlike the perceptual visual field, which is spatially limited because the structure of the head around the eyes determines its limits. Therefore, the one center, the focal point for directed attention for both the perceptual visual field and the elementary visual field, lies at the center of the elementary visual field.

Figure 2, area 4, which includes the whole diagram, illustrates the total area of the scannable visual surface and shows the limitations of my eye movement as I scan the image. Whether I scan the external world, which I see in perception, or a lattice pattern, I move my visual field within the limits of the visual surface (area 4), with my focus of attention always in the center of the elementary visual field. This is always so, with any seeing. In the figure, the elementary visual field (area 3) is shown in the lower left of the visual surface (area 4) as though I am in the midst of scanning a lattice. Since the size of the squares and number of rows of a pattern can vary in crisscross and chessboard patterns from one appearance to another, the pattern in Figure 1 can represent what I see within the elementary visual field or can be the whole scannable pattern over the visual surface.

The plus sign in Figure 2 marks the center of the elementary visual field, where directed attention and the part of the image that I look at are centered, even while I scan. What lies beyond my narrow area of attention I normally see passively but do not look at or attend to, just as happens during visual perception. I do not always notice the size and shape of the elementary visual field, just as I do not always (if ever) notice the size and shape of the perceptual visual field. The borders of either visual field lie too far away from the central focus of attention to easily notice them.

During visual perception, it is understandable that the center of the visual field, where I focus my attention, should provide the clearest visual experience of details, because the center corresponds to the fovea within the retina, and the rest of the visual field is never seen equally clearly. During lattice imagery also my focused attention is limited to the center of the visual field, where, even without the help of the fovea, I can best study the details of the lattice. It is the center that I look at and the center where my attention is directed. Unlike the perceptual visual field, however, the lattice image, when it fills the elementary visual field, is equally detailed and clear across the visual field.

Although the scannable lattice image is all of equal clarity, I see the center of the lattice visual field more easily than the rest, not because my attention to the center makes it clearer or brighter than the rest, because it doesn’t, but because, just as happens during visual perception, it is always difficult to look beyond the center where my attention is located. I can barely do more than take notice, if I choose to, of what is away from the center, just as happens when I am awake and perceiving. I may notice brightness, movement, or color contrast away from the center, but I look directly at no other part of the image. If I want to see another area of the lattice clearly, I need to move my eyes to place the other area in the center, just as I do with visual perception.

That the elementary visual field is larger than the perceptual visual field means that elementary imagery may sometimes be seen beyond the boundaries of ordinary perceptual vision, especially if it is prominent. Such imagery located beyond the perceptual limits has been seen, for example, in hypnopompic imagery (Gillespie, 2009), migraine aura imagery (Sacks, 1992), light imagery associated with lucid dreaming (Gillespie, 1989; 2009), synesthesia (Cytowic, 1993), and in tantric Hindu meditation (Krishna, 1970). For example, Cytowic reports a case of synesthesia in which a woman reports “I see shiny white isosceles triangles, like shards of broken glass. . . . I feel that the space above my eyes is a big screen where this scene is playing” (1993, p. 120).

I know very well that the dominant thought among philosophers and scientists today is that an internal image (at least of any literal kind, consisting of color and visual form), cannot be scanned, and that, in fact, an internal image that is seen is an impossibility (see, for example, Crick, 1994; Dennett, 1991, 1992; Gibson, 1986; Kosslyn & Pomerantz, 1981; Neisser, 1976). And such believers must have difficulty reading this. However, my experiences have proven to me that the image itself is also the seeing and seer of the image. That is how it is seen. Since pursuing that point would add little to the discussion of attention and I have introduced my observations elsewhere (Gillespie, 1990, 1997) and hope to do so more later, I will say no more about it here.

The Perceptual Mindset

At first, I studied the lattice pattern by scanning it. By moving my eyes, I directed my visual field (Figure 2, area 3) over the visual surface (Figure 2, area 4). I could not move my eyes without scanning the image. As I scanned, my visual attention, as always, remained on the center of the visual field. I thought I saw everything by scanning most of the pattern across the visual surface. It did not occur to me that, because my attention was limited to the center of the visual field, I might not notice important changes in the rest of the visual field as I scanned. Now that I review my original notes on my 88 lattice observations, I see that it was only after seeing my 75th lattice that I thought of paying some attention to the image beyond my focal point.

I had suspicions that the pattern formed a dome into which I looked. This I suspected, because as I scan, each eye moves “like a ball in a socket” (Hubel, 1988, p. 28). I could roll my eyes to look to my left at the image and then roll them to my right, where I could look at the other side of the image. This rotating movement of the eyes suggested that I was scanning a dome across the whole visual surface. I decided to investigate that possibility further.

I wrote after lattice 75, “by keeping my eyes still and looking at one spot, I want to examine [beyond the center] for curves, distortions [of the image], or any deviations from the flat-wall look of the center of the pattern.” Beginning with lattice 76, I took notice of what appeared directly beyond the center and saw that beyond the center, the pattern always gradually turned back toward me on all sides of the center.

Shepard (1978), other than saying that his patterns seemed to be “space-filling,” also makes no comment on the look of the visual field beyond the center or on the effect of seeing the complete visual field. From all that he does say, I would judge that his observations also were based primarily on the parts of the image on which his attention centered, not the pattern over the visual field as a whole.

When I started to study the lattice away from my central focus, I began to see that the pattern-filled visual field as a whole formed a recessed hemispheric dome, of which the image at my attentional center formed the apex. All the dome appeared to lie at an equidistance from my viewpoint, as though I was seeing in all directions. A hemisphere cannot be constructed of a strictly-formed lattice, of course. Therefore, the lattice that I saw around me was distorted—the farther from the center, the more distorted. The visual surface itself did not form a dome or hemisphere. Only the visual field did.

I will try to describe the hemisphere in terms of Figure 1. Figure 1 shows the elementary visual field filled with lattice imagery. My attention, as always, is directed to the middle of the figure. My attention is narrow, which means that most of the visual field, other than the center, I neglect, as happens during visual perception. When I take notice of the image beyond the center, I see that the visual field is a hemisphere of distorted lattice that I look into. The part of the image that lies at the center of the circle I see as the apex of the hemisphere while the center of the base of the hemisphere remains my viewpoint. As I scan the image, the lattice pattern changes accordingly, but the relationship of apex, viewpoint, and hemisphere remains the same.

Mardi J. Horowitz, in his study of the formal elements of elementary hallucinatory forms, observes that one quality of the imagery often experienced is “the sense of a receding center to the visual field” (Horowitz, 1975, p. 178). That is exactly what I see when I take notice of more than the center of the visual field. I concluded that I see the lattice as a dome around me, because when I see it, I am thinking perceptually. When I perceive the world, the world lies in every direction from my eye (my viewpoint) and what I am looking directly at or towards forms the apex of my view. During the lattice experience I have what I think of as a “perceptual mindset.” The hemispheric look (the perceptual mindset) is automatic and, ordinarily, constant. I do not think it through. When I do not direct my attention to any part of the image, as when I am thinking of something else, I still see the hemispheric lattice around me.

Seeing Without the Perceptual Mindset

I found that by putting aside my perceptual mindset, I could remove my attention from the center of the lattice visual field and look at the visual field as a whole. When I direct my attention to the whole, I cannot focus on any of the pattern’s fine details. However, I see with equal clarity the uniformity of the pattern over the whole elementary visual field, even when it is not bright.  Since centered attention is removed and the construction of the lattice does not depend on the work of the retina and fovea, I see no gradual or sharp loss of acuity across the lattice visual field.

When I see the pattern as a whole without the perceptual mindset, I see that it is actually flat across the visual field. It is exactly as shown in Figure 1. All lines and squares are geometrically precise like graph paper, with no distortion of the uniformity of the image. There is no hemisphere, no apex, no centered attention, no point looked at, no viewpoint, and no seeing as if in all directions. It is only with the perceptual mindset that I see the lattice distorted into a hemisphere. In the context of visual perception, Hubel says, “The image cast on our retinas is two-dimensional, but we look out on a three-dimensional world” (1988, p. 145). With lattice imagery, the hemisphere is the world that I look out onto. When I scan the lattice, although my eyes turn as though they are looking in different directions, the scanning itself is the movement of a flat visual field over a flat surface.

In fact, centered attention functions only within the context of the perceptual mindset and the projected hemisphere of image. I can actually freely take turns seeing the lattice as flat, which it proves to be, then as a projected hemisphere, then as flat again, as I will. The image doesn’t change; my mindset changes. When I mention a lattice hemisphere and a flat image, I intend to describe only my visual experience, not any two- or three-dimensional entity that may exist in the brain.

In the context of Mann and Walker’s discussion of one’s ability to broaden the spread of attention within the visual field, that is, “zoom out,” I would say that for me to change from centered attention to looking at the whole is not a broadening of the field of attention. It is a change in mindset.


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