The word “attention” comes from the Latin attention, itself derived from attendere, which means “to turn one’s mind towards”o turn one’s mind or perhaps one’s senses. In any case, the term is currently very ambiguous, and all the more so since it is used in different senses by researchers and clinicians referring to quite varied epistemological horizons.
In France, Didier Houzel has made the most careful study of the concept in recent years, notably in relation to infant observation. According to this author, if the function of attention is only rarely mentioned in the psychoanalytic literature, it is in part due to the ambiguity it evokes and also in part because attention is traditionally linked to consciousness without there ever existing any clear definition of a possible unconscious attention.
Freud mentions attention for the first time in his book On Aphasia (1891b), where he discusses divided attention (geteilte Aufmerksamkeit): “When I read proofs with the intention of paying special attention to the letters and other symbols, the meaning of what I am reading escapes me to such a degree that I require a second perusal for the purpose of correcting the style. If, on the other hand, I read a novel, which holds my interest, I overlook all misprints and it may happen that I retain nothing of the names of the persons figuring in the book except for some meaningless feature or perhaps the recollection that they were long or short, and that they contained an unusual letter such as x or z. Again, when I have to recite, whereby I have to pay special attention to the sound impressions of my words and to the intervals between them, I am in danger of caring too little about the meaning, and as soon as fatigue sets in I am reading in such a way that the listener can still understand, but I myself no longer know what I have been reading. These are phenomena of divided attention which are of particular importance here” (pp. 75-76).