William James' Functionalism: Theory of Attention and Consciousness

Knoji reviews products and up-and-coming brands we think you'll love. In certain cases, we may receive a commission from brands mentioned in our guides. Learn more.
William James is the founder and creator of functionalism which is a theory of consciousness. Functionalism is considered a modification of how we process information to make our lives more easier.

Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology (2010) claims conscious “is the moral dimension of human consciousness, the means by which humans modify instinctual drives to conform to laws and moral codes.” This is our internal voice that governs our behaviors, attitudes, beliefs and how we conduct ourselves in society. If we did not have this internal dimension of human consciousness to conform to laws of society, I believe we could literally destroy our world. There would be more rapes, robbery, murder and other lawlessness. 

Functionalism is a study of consciousness developed by William James. He was a doctor, psychologist, and a philosopher. Williams James’ theory of consciousness is considered environmental. According to Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology (2010), “Consciousness helps people adapt to their environment.” (p. 150) For example, if you are from a small town and you travel to a city you are not familiar with, you will most likely lock your car doors and pays special attention to your surroundings. Your consciousness is on high alert as you adapt to your surroundings.

If you come from a big city with a high crime rate to a small town, you most likely will have a difficult time adjusting to people who will go out of their way to talk to you or offer help. It is what drives your senses in adjusting to a confusing environment. According to Sternberg, R.J. (2010) “Functionalists held that the key to understanding the human mind and behavior was to study the processes of how and why the mind works as it does, rather than to study the structural contents and elements of the mind.” (p. 6) Functionalists are more interested in asking probing questions that further the process of discovering how the mind works. Functionalists ask questions that do not necessarily have immediate answers but are measured by usefulness and validity.

Functionalism is not without its limitations. Many researchers and philosophers have countered against functionalism. According to Godfrey-Smith (2008), Putman gives two legitimate arguments against functionalism. He claims that functionalism fails to stand on its own and falls into the category of behaviorism. He uses the input-output association method. What is input into the brain equals what comes on in terms of behavior. Chalmers tries to discredit Putman’s theory, but it just ended in what amounts to be a modification of Putman’s theory. According to Godfrey-Smith (2008), “He takes some of these arguments to have surprising conclusions, but denies that they endanger computationalism or functionalism about the mind.” (p. 274)

We all use functionalism each day to make processing information to make our daily activities more easier. Think of how many times we might have to modify our learning style to fit the course we take each semester. We may find that certain courses require us to memorize high points in our text because the exam is multiple choices. Many times I have changed environments from studying at home to studying at the library just to be able focus. Again this is a process of how we adjust ourselves to our environment.

Steinberg, R.J. (2010) claims that scientists have learned a great deal about attention processes in the brain by studying patients with abnormal attention processing. The majority of these patients have blood clots and lesions in the brain causing abnormal attention processing. According to Sternberg, R.J (2010), psychopharmacological approach is another method of studying attention and consciousness. The psychopharmacological approach studying elevated chemicals associated with the neurotransmitters.

Furthermore, scientist can study the physiological changes associated with “pupillary dilation, changes in the autonomic (self-regulating) nervous system (see Chapter 2), and distinctive EEG patterns” (p. 171). These are natural chemicals occur in the brain that affect consciousness and awareness. “The nature of subjective experience, in other words how do thoughts somehow arise from chemical processes in the brain cells.” (2007 Horizon) Knowing that it comes from chemical processes in the brain it makes it easier to understand what they are doing and the actions that are taking place.

According to Horizon (2007), “It has commonly been proposed that mind and consciousness are products of neuronal activity and arise from brain activity. Conceptually, this is similar to how light arises from a light bulb, but isn't the same as the underlying processes taking place within the light bulb. A number of different theories have been proposed to account for this phenomenon, which portray consciousness as an emergent property of brain cell activity in the brain.

Specifically it has been proposed that consciousness, may arise where brain cells connect together, through a synchronous activity of brain cell networks in the brain and as a novel property of computational complexity among brain cells.” (2007 Horizon) It appears that the way the brain is constructed in consciousness development that the brain is like a high speed computer with the brains cells connecting together and running as a super highway. Sternberg, R.J. (2010) claim in depth inquiry on attentional brain processes seems to propose that the attentional system predominantly involves two sections of the cortex, as well as the thalamus and some extra subcortical structures.

The attentional system as well controls various specific methods that occur in many areas of the brain, particularly in the cerebral cortex. “Attentional processes may be a result of heightened activation in some areas of the brain, of inhibited activity in other areas of the brain, or perhaps of some combination of activation and inhibition,” (p. 174) The thalamus is a large, two lobed grey matter mass hidden under the cerebral cortex. It is involved in sensory awareness and regulation of motor functions. According to Bailey, R. (n.d.), the thalamus controls “Motor Control, Receives Auditory, Somatosensory and Visual Sensory Signals, Relays Sensory Signals to the Cerebral Cortex, Controls Sleep and Awake States.” (p. 1)


Graciela Sholander
Posted on Mar 27, 2012
Nobert Bermosa
Posted on Jan 11, 2012
Ron Siojo
Posted on Jan 10, 2012
Roberta Baxter
Posted on Jan 9, 2012