In Stream of Consciousness, Barry Dainton defines a kind of introspection he calls “passive introspection”, in which you “register something of the character of the contents of your peripheral experience without focusing your attention onto your peripheral experience itself”. Peripheral experience, as used by Dainton, refers to experiences that are not the centre of one’s attention but that one nevertheless is aware of. For example, hunched over my laptop and sitting on my bed, I am attending to the movements on the computer screen, but I’m peripherally aware of the pressure the bed is asserting on my butt. Dainton wants to go beyond identifying the possibility of inattentive awareness, as he calls it. Passive introspection is sort of in between inattentive awareness and active introspection: “In passive introspection we focus our attention away from the content we wish to describe or take not of; in this manner, we can (in a manner of speaking) attend to what we are not paying attention to.”
Dainton, though, recognises a “whiff of paradox” in attending to something one is not paying attention to. But he thinks that it isn’t really paradoxical, because we can do it by directing “secondary attention” to the objects of passive introspection. Primary attention is what is directed towards our main object of attention. For example, I am certainly directing primary attention to my laptop screen right now. But, Dainton says, if he were to ask me what was the colour of the walls in my peripheral vision, I’d be able to answer him without “significantly lessening the degree of attention” I’m paying to my laptop screen. This ability to direct some attention to my peripheral surroundings indicates the existence of secondary attention.
The thing is, if I try Dainton’s experiment with asking myself some small fact about my surroundings while looking at the screen, I can’t do it without taking my attention off the screen. Maybe this indicates some deficiency on my part — I’ve noticed that relative to other people, I am awful at multi-tasking. I’m one of those people who can’t work when music that I really like is playing — either I listen to the music and do nothing else, or I mentally block out the music and do my work. When I ask myself what is the colour of the surrounding walls, I find myself taking my attention completely (or almost — most of it anyway) off the screen, applying it to the walls (and to my inner question-asking voice), and then quickly returning to the screen after I obtain an answer. To be sure, it’s a very quick flitting of attention, but a flitting it is nonetheless. So I’m not convinced that passive introspection is a commonplace feature of human consciousness.