The world just gets more and more busy but your brain was never designed to pay attention to multiple things.
We are biologically incapable of processing attention-rich inputs simultaneously.
Nothing proves this like the research of Dan Simons, one of the authors of The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us.
If you’re not familar with his work on attention, check out the two videos below. Pretty fascinating:
(50% of people don’t notice.)
And sometimes you choose not to pay attention
When you’re given a reason to trust something, you scrutinize it less.
Descriptions of research accompanied by brain scan photos were rated as better written than the same summaries without the photos. All the research contained unsubstantiated, dubious claims.
In one clever experiment, David McCabe and Alan Castel had subjects read one of two descriptions of a fictitious research study. The text was identical, but one description was accompanied by a typical three-dimensional brain image with activated areas drawn in color, while the other included only an ordinary bar graph of the same data. Subjects who read the version with the brain porn thought that the article was significantly better written and made more sense. The kicker is that none of the fictitious studies actually made any sense— they all described dubious claims that were not at all improved by the decorative brain scans.
And when someone you recognize as an expert speaks, parts of your brain actually shut down.
Fascinatingly, the fMRI showed that in the face of “expert” advice (even though it actually wasn’t particularly good advice), the parts of the volunteers’ brains involved in considering alternatives became almost completely inactive. It seems that receiving “expert” advice shuts down the areas of our brains that are responsible for decision-making processes, especially when the situation involves risk…
And powerful people are so self-absorbed they don’t pay attention to anyone.
So what can you do to improve your ability to pay attention?
Some of the limits are biological but research shows that meditation can help.
Or spend time in nature.
Mark Berman (2008) and a team of researchers had participants perform the backward digit-span task, which measures a person’s capacity to focus attention. Next, participants were asked to do a task that would wear out their voluntary attention. After that, some walked through downtown Ann Arbor, Michigan, and some walked through the city’s arboretum. The arboretum has trees and wide lawns (that is, it is a pastoral environment). Following the walk, the participants did the backward digit-span task again. Scores were higher for the people who had walked through the arboretum. Stephen Kaplan (one of the researchers) calls this attention restoration therapy.
While natural settings can be as busy and stimulating as a city, we process them differently, allowing for attention to be restored. Even looking at pictures of nature had positive effects.
What if none of these really help? Is there an upside to not being very good at paying attention?
Daydreamers are more creative.
Mind-wandering allows one part of the brain to focus on the task at hand, and another part of the brain to keep a higher goal in mind. Christoff (2009) at the University of California, Santa Barbara has evidence that people whose minds wander a lot are more creative and better problem solvers. Their brains have them working on the task at hand but simultaneously processing other information and making connections.
And so are people with attention deficit disorder.
Surprisingly, those students diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) got significantly higher scores. White then measured levels of creative achievement in the real world, asking the students if they’d ever won prizes at juried art shows or been honored at science fairs. In every single domain, from drama to engineering, the students with ADHD had achieved more. Their attention deficit turned out to be a creative blessing.
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