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Are You Paying Attention?


Are You Paying Attention?

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And what, exactly, does that mean?

By Felix Lecocq
QA Coordinator, MindEdge Learning

The debut of every new social media platform triggers a collective panic about our smartphones rotting our brains and destroying our attention spans.

In the “attention economy,” it can sometimes feel like we’re in a perpetual market crash.

I have friends who lament that they used to read books for hours and hours as children but now struggle to focus on a long-form article. Social media, in particular, is often compared to a casino, where users gamble away their hours, waiting for that lucky dopamine hit. I know I can spend a whole evening idling on my phone, only to look at the clock and wonder how the hours whirred by when I wasn’t paying attention.

For those of us who take or develop educational courses online, the question of attention is an important one. But what is attention, actually?

Although it might seem that attention is an obvious and observable phenomenon, the concept of attention as we know it is a relatively new one. The earliest writing on what we understand as “attention” was done by philosophers, and attention didn’t really get studied by psychologists until just over a century ago.

In the early 20th century, psychologist Edward B. Titchener developed a theory that classified all aspects of conscious experience into three components:

  • sensations (sights, sounds, textures, tastes)
  • images (elements of thoughts)
  • affections (elements of emotions)

According to Titchener’s 1908 lectures, attention is “an attribute of sensation” that affects the way we perceive our surroundings. For example, if we hear a sound while focusing our attention on something else, we will perceive the sound as quieter than if we were focusing our attention on the sound itself.

Titchener was more interested in investigating attention’s effect on other processes than in understanding the processes that affect our attention. In later years, psychologists stopped thinking about attention as an element of consciousness and began to consider it as a behavior.

In the 1950s, there was a resurgence of interest in attention psychology, which has been attributed to World War II radar operators struggling to focus on auditory signals. In 1953, Colin Cherry coined the term “cocktail party effect,” which describes our ability to focus attention on one speaker within a soundscape of other conversations and background noises. Cherry also noted that our attention can be quickly diverted from the speaker by another stimulus, such as hearing our name or a glass breaking.

With the advent of computer technology in the late 20th century, psychologists began to explain attention and other cognitive processes through computer metaphors. Donald Broadbent proposed his version of a filter model to explain attention. According to Broadbent, our sensations are passed through a selective filter that analyzes their attributes. Whatever the filter deems important will then be processed and stored as memory.

Nowadays, psychologists are still trying to understand and describe attention. Some classify attention into two categories: automatic and directed. Automatic attention is what we use when interacting with something that engages our brain’s default mode network. This type of attention is often associated with motivation and reward. We might use automatic attention to scroll through social media, play video games, or watch TV.

Directed attention is a more conscious type of attention that requires sustained effort. We might use directed attention to perform a challenging activity, such as completing an online course. While this type of attention is crucial to meaningful work, sustaining it for too long can cause “directed attention fatigue,” a phenomenon that occurs when we spend too much effort on filtering out distractions while focusing on a task. Directed attention fatigue can make us tired, stressed, and irritable.

Sound familiar? After a long day of work, social engagements, or child care, we often find ourselves totally exhausted just from paying attention for a long time. Sometimes directed attention fatigue is unavoidable, but experts point to ways you can help yourself recover once you’ve reached that point.

Psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan at the University of Michigan have proposed an idea they call “attention restoration theory,” which holds that we can recover from directed attention fatigue by being in nature. While walking around a city street might require directed attention to cross the road and avoid collisions with other pedestrians, walking in a natural environment provides us with pleasant features that engage our automatic attention. The researchers refer to these features as “soft fascinations”—passive stimuli that give us mental space to reflect. Examples include rustling leaves or waves breaking against a shore.

So, next time you feel depleted or unable to concentrate, consider logging off social media and taking a walk around your local green space. You might return to your desk with a restored attention span, as well as a greater appreciation for natural beauty.

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