How Your Brain Works: The Power & Challenge of Attention

Attention is probably 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 an incredible number of things in our field of awareness that are fighting 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 attentionhas two dimensions: 1) the amount of stuff we can attend to and 2) the amount of time we can maintain our concentration.
  • In terms of amount of stuff, our attention can be viewed as having two axes: breadth and depth. Our attention can be extremely wide and shallow or extremely 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!

The Power of Attention

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

Implications for Students and Teachers

  • Fore every study session, always have a clear goal in mind: What am I going to pay attention to today?
  • Focus on learning one thing at a time.
  • If you are unsure about what to pay attention to, find a great teacher. A great teacher will direct your attention to things you might not otherwise notice.
  • Great students have the power to direct their own attention in the right places.
  • Great teachers know where to direct the student’s attention.
  • Studying is pointless if one is not prepared to concentrate. Concentration is hard work that cannot be done properly when you are tired or stressed or distracted.
  • Focused attention is hard mental labor. Take a break when you get tired.
  • Weeks and months and years of unfocused dabbling and mindless mechanical practice is worthless compared to one minute of focused, meaningful attention.

LEARN MORE… Soak Time

About Frank J Peter

A uniquely burdened and blessed citizen of the world thinking and acting out loud!
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