How Your Brain Works: The Power of Attention

person looking through a magnifying glass

Attention is perhaps the least appreciated aspect of intentional learning…

In short, we consciously learn what we pay attention to. The corollary is that we do not consciously learn what we don’t pay attention to. When we are not paying attention, we are extremely vulnerable to learning certain things unconsciously. When we are not paying attention, we are at the mercy of another form of learning: conditioning… And we are as vulnerable to being trained as Pavlov’s dogs and Skinner’s pigeons.

The Challenge of Attention

Directing our attention to the right things is tough in a world were we are conditioned to be passive consumers of information. Paying attention to the right things is one of the most difficult things we can do with our brains…

For at least three reasons:

  • There are lots of things vying for our attention: external sights and sounds, bodily sensations, and internal thoughts, memories, emotions.
  • It takes experience and insight to know what to pay attention to.
  • Focused attention requires lots of mental energy and can be absolutely exhausting.

The Limits of Attention

We are only human. And our attention, like all of our other capabilities, has its limitations:

  • Our attention is always selective. There is always far more information available to us than we can attend to at one time.
  • Our capacity for paying attention has two aspects: 1) the amount of stuff we can attend to and 2) the amount of time we can maintain our concentration.
  • Our attention can be viewed as having two dimensions: breadth and depth. Our attention can be wide and shallow or narrow and deep or anything in between. In other words, we can trade breadth for depth and vice versa but we can never maximize both.
  • If we pay attention to many things at once, we have less capacity to attend to the details about each individual thing.
  • If we pay attention to one thing at a time, we have the capacity to attend to it in more detail, but lose the capacity to notice other things.
  • Our attention must be selective and tailored to the task at hand in terms of breadth and depth, enabling us to be receptive at the level of detail we are trying to learn.
  • Focusing attention is very hard mental work that will wear you out. When you get tired, be sure to give yourself a break in order to recharge your batteries!

A Fascinating Example of Attention

A must-see, eye-opening demonstration of the power of attention…

An additional point to be made regarding the limits of our attention is that we see with our brain, not just with our eyes…. so much so that our brains can render us blind despite the fact that light is hitting our retinas!

Implications for Students and Teachers

  • Always have a clear goal in mind: What am I going to pay attention to today?
  • Focus on learning one thing at a time.
  • A great teacher will direct your attention to things you might not otherwise notice.
  • Studying is pointless if one is not prepared to concentrate. Concentration is hard work that cannot be done properly when you are tired, stressed, or distracted.
  • Focused attention is hard mental labor. Take a break when you get tired.
  • Years of mindless mechanical practice is worthless compared to one minute of focused, meaningful attention.

learn more… How Your Brain Works: Soak Time

Leave a Reply