For many, the word "attention" is stigmatized. It's associated with classroom admonishments, "Pay attention now," and the critical voice, "Weren't you paying attention?!" Attention is actually a complex process essential to memory formation and increasingly valued in today’s distracted world. Why do we choose to lend our attention to something an. how do we gauge relevance? Scientists and marketers are rushing to understand.
To begin with, we know that attention is limited. How limited? Watch the video below. Were you paying attention? How did you do?
The majority of viewers who thought they were paying attention didn't see obvious changes. This experiment and the one below demonstrate a phenomenon called "change blindness." Though the eyes are constantly scanning events, our mind can only pay attention to one- thing-at-a-time and researchers aren't sure why some people notice the main change and some don't. As the video below shows--we're neither right nor wrong because of what we choose to pay attention to and if we don't see relevant changes we're certainly not alone.
Change blindness is not only observed in experiments. It's a perceptual vulnerability in life. "Our perception is not really what it seems," Oxford cognitive neuroscientist, Kia Nobre explains in a forum on time at the World Science Festival. "...we have limitations so certain things that occur too quickly, when our brains are still processing some other event, get missed altogether..." As pickpocket Apollo Robbins demonstrates, in his TED talk below, limitations invite manipulation. By moving quickly and commanding our limited attention magicians and pickpockets earn a living deceiving the process of attention science is just beginning to understand.
Christina E. Hugenschmidt, a Ph.D. candidate at the Wake Forest School of Medicine, tells us that attention has two main functions. First, it speeds up the brain's processing of what you want to pay attention to, and secondly it slows down the processing of what you want to ignore. Neurobiologist, Lila Davachi, speaking at the World Science forum on time, likened attention to a spyglass with a lens that widens and narrows, "If you think of attention as a spy glass and you only have a little spy glass [of perception] at a time what happens in emotional situations is that it opens up...so you take in just a little bit more and, typically, it's the information that's relevant--- like the gun that's pointing at you!" Nobre summarized, "I think the research shows us a starkly different reality than the one we all intuit, we feel... We have this illusion that... [we] can take everything in," she said, sweeping the forum stage, panel, and audience with a gesture, "...and that is simply false!
Attention is important in guiding us to notice things. It's also interrelated with memory. Nobel prize winning neuropsychiatrist Eric Kandel explains,"Attention is important for several aspects of learning and memory storage. When you learn something you encode the information and that itself requires attention. But in addition, recall of memory also requires attention. So, attention is absolutely critical. It is particularly critical for a form of memory we call declarative or explicit memory storage, which is a memory about people, places, and objects..." Explicit memory relies on "attentional capture" to trigger awareness of a stimulus. That awareness or attention allows us to activate working memory and make subsequent decisions on whether or not to move the stimulus into long term memory or simply discard.
Though science perceives the link between explicit memory and attention it doesn't yet know how to restore attention for people experiencing memory problems. ADHD, Dementia, Depression and sometimes other neurological conditions like ALS or Parkinson's can impact the ability to moderate or maintain attention resulting in memory loss and other challenges. Money for brain research may change that. President Obama's commitment to brain mapping and Paul Allen's Institute for Brain Science are pushing research ahead gradually and we're beginning an age of great promise. Recent research on a glial cell called an astrocyte, at the Salk Institute, for example, "could be the smoking gun" linking attention to memory. Interestingly, it stems from analysis of Albert Einstein's brain-- as study author Terrence Sejnowski explains in the video below.
Our studies of attention inform our laws on cell phone use and prompt curiosity and concern about how technology may be altering our ability to focus. "The Internet is an interruption system. It seizes our attention only to scramble it," Nicholas Carr cautioned in his book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains, in 2010. Since then, technology's impact on attention has been questioned by teachers, parents, and psychologists. One thing is as sure as our promising research...we live in a new attention economy. When information is bountiful, attention is limited and precious, writes business psychologist, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, explaining how attention has become a scarce commodity driving the economy. And so, dear reader, if you've reached this final sentence, thank you for your valuable attention- may it never be deceived or taken for granted and may it enable a life of warm memories!
Update March 2020: This article on attention explores the link to values.