Attention can be directed or involuntary. Insofar as different brain networks are involved in directed and involuntary attention, they reflect categorically distinct processes. This dual-process model of attention has been criticized, however. Rather than conceiving directed and involuntary attention as mutually exclusive categories, some argue it would be more accurate to consider their differences as matters of degree.
From this perspective, the attributes of attention vary along a continuum, with directed and involuntary attention representing opposite poles of the continuum. For example, directed attention is more controlled and goal-driven and less automatic and stimulus-driven than involuntary attention (Moors and De Houwer; 2006). However, since separate brain regions are involved in the different types of attention, they probably have some defining characteristics that do not overlap. This is the position of Evans and Stanovich (2013) who support the dual-process theory of cognition and say the key feature of Type 1 (associated with involuntary attention) is “autonomous processing” and the key feature of Type 2 (associated with directed attention) is “the ability to sustain the decoupling of secondary representations—a key feature of all working memory tasks.” Cognitive decoupling happens when we distinguish what we suppose to be true from what might actually be the case. Type 2 processing involves experiencing beliefs as beliefs, as windows-in-themselves and not windows-on-the-world. So, when we are coupling cognitive-wise, we are considering cognitions as objects of attention – much like when we are “observing thoughts”.
Evans and Stanovich call Type 1 the default process and Type 2 the interventionist process. Thus when we consider our intuitions, beliefs, emotions, and thoughts as such, we are intervening with their unfolding. We have paused them.
Moors, A., & De Houwer, J. (2006). Automaticity: A theoretical and conceptual analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 132, 297–326.
Evans, Jonathan St. B. T. and Stanovich, Keith E. Dual-Process Theories of Higher Cognition Advancing the Debate Perspectives on Psychological Science May 2013 vol. 8 no. 3 223-241.