The Attentional Shaping of Perceptual Experience

An Investigation into Attention and Cognitive Penetrability

There is a long-standing debate in cognitive science about the interaction between what we believe or desire to be the case and what we experience to be the case.

According to one strand of the debate, our beliefs, desires, and other similar mental states can shape how we experience the world through the senses. According to the opposite strand, our perceptual experiences of the world are determined by what we encounter in the world and immune to any influence from mental states like beliefs and desires. Questions raised in this debate concern, for example, whether negative thoughts make everything look darker, whether wearing heavy backpacks causes slopes to appear steeper, and whether an expert birdwatcher sees a moving bird differently from a layman.

In its modern version, the hypothesis that mental states like beliefs and desires can shape how we experience the world is usually referred to as the cognitive penetrability of perceptual experience. The label “cognitive” refers to the kind of mental states that are supposed to do the shaping, and “perceptual experience” refers to the way in which we experience the world through the senses, which is supposed to be shaped by those mental states.

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