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Analysis by synthesis

In his influential book Cognitive Psychology (1967), Ulric Neisser proposed that the whole idea of a "filter" was wrong. It was too passive, suggesting that the cognitive system sits back and receives information without seeking it out. If we view the thought process as a construction, then selective attention results from what we seek, not what we fail to filter out. Neisser called this analysis by synthesis.

What was Neisser's "analysis-by-synthesis" proposal, and how does the apple picking analogy clarify it?

Neisser explained the analysis by synthesis model with an analogy. If we see a man picking apples in an orchard, we assume his activity is determined by what he is seeking (ripe apples) not by what he is filtering out or choosing not to select (unripe apples, leaves, twigs, bugs, etc.). We make this assumption because we recognize that apple picking is goal-directed activity. If attention is also seen as a goal-directed activity, then the "problem" of selective attention is the problem of explaining what is included, not what is left out.

How does analysis-by-synthesis deal with the cocktail party phenomenon? Suppose you are at a party, straining to pay attention to what the person in front of your is saying. This is a goal-directed activity. You are trying to construct the meanings that are coming from that person (using directional information to help you "tune in" on the person's voice). You ignore all the other conversations because they are not relevant to your goal, not because some filter is removing them. In short, your attention is an act of positive selection or synthesis, not an act of negative selection or filtering. Everything not included in your synthesis is disregarded.

With a few exceptions—such as having our gaze drawn toward movement in peripheral vision, or having our attention activated when our names are called—the material which enters attention is that which fits with the goal of an activity. Information that appears to be "filtered out" is simply that which is not "tuned in." It does not contribute to the goal and therefore never makes it into the ongoing synthesis we call attention. On the other hand, if it is relevant (if it finishes a sentence we have been shadowing, or it involves our name, or it requires our attention in driving) then we allow it into consciousness.

What is concentration?

We recognize this phenomenon when we use the word concentration, which is a very focused form of attention. People with great powers of concentration (such as talented athletes) develop a sort of "tunnel vision." They ignore all distractions, because the distractions do not contribute toward their goals. However, details that contribute to their goals are allowed into the thought process.


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Copyright © 2007-2011 Russ Dewey