Attention, Attention!

This week, we revisit a Seven Arrows favorite, John Medina’s book, Brain Rules. His chapter about how our brains function in relation to memory retention is a practical resource worth sharing.

“We have known for a long time that ‘interest’ or ‘importance’ is inextricably linked to attention. Researchers sometimes call this arousal. Exactly how it relates to attention is still a mystery. Does interest create attention? We know that the brain continuously scans the sensory horizon, with events constantly assessed for their potential interest or importance. The more important events are then given extra attention.

“Emotionally arousing events tend to be better remembered than neutral events… One important area of research is the effect of emotions on learning. An emotionally charged event (usually called an ECS, short for emotionally competent stimulus) is the best-processes kind of external stimulus ever measured. Emotionally charged events persist much longer in our memories and are recalled with greater accuracy than neutral memories.

“How does this work in our brains? It involves the prefrontal cortex, that uniquely human part of the brain that governs ‘executive functions’ such as problem-solving, maintaining attention, and inhibiting emotional impulses. If the prefrontal cortex is the board chairman, the cingulate gyrus is its personal assistant. The assistant provides the chairman with certain filtering functions and assists in teleconferencing with other parts of the brain — especially the amygdala — which helps create and maintain emotions. The amygdala is chock-full of the neurotransmitter dopamine and it uses dopamine the way an office assistant uses Post-It notes. When the brain detects an emotionally charged event, the amygdala releases dopamine into the system. Because dopamine greatly aids memory and information processing, you could say the Post-It note reads, ‘Remember this!’ Getting the brain to put a chemical Post-It note on a given piece of information means that information is going to be more robustly processed. It is what every teacher, parent, and ad executive wants.

“The brain remembers the emotional components of an experience better than any other aspect. We might forget minute details of an interstate fender bender, for example, yet vividly recall the fear of trying to get to the shoulder without further mishap. Studies show that emotional arousal focuses attention on the ‘gist’ of an experience at the expense of peripheral details. Many researchers think that’s how memory normally works — by recording the gist of what we encounter, nor by retaining a literal record the experience. With the passage of time, our retrieval of gist always trumps our recall of details. This means our heads tend to be filled with generalized pictures of concepts or events, not with slowly fading minutiae. I am convinced that America’s love of retrieval game shows such as Jeopardy! exists because we are dazzled by the unusual people who can invert this tendency. Of course, at work and at school, detailed knowledge often is critical for success. Interestingly, our reliance on gist may actually be fundamental to finding a strategy for remembering details.

“Multitasking, when it comes to paying attention, is a myth. The brain naturally focuses on concepts sequentially, one at a time. At first, that might sound confusing; at one level the brain does multitask. You can walk and talk at the same time. Your brain controls your heartbeat while you read a book. Pianists can play a piece with left hand and right hand simultaneously. Surely, this is multitasking. But I am talking about the brain’s ability to pay attention. It is the resource you forcibly deploy while trying to listen to a boring lecture at school. It is the activity that collapses as your brain wanders during a tedious presentation at work. This attentional ability is not capable of multitasking.”

In summary:

  • People don’t pay attention to boring things.
  • The brain’s attentional “spotlight” can focus on only one thing at a time: no multitasking.
  • We are better at seeing patterns and abstracting the meaning of an event than we are at recording detail.
  • Emotional arousal helps the brain learn.
  • Audiences check out after 10 minutes, but you can grab them back by telling narratives or creating events rich in emotion.