Attention is a tricky thing to catch and maintain. And infinitely more complex are the processes that go behind paying attention. But what if they’re not that complex? What if they’re actually very easy to understand? Well, let’s find out.
What is attention?
During an average 24 hour day, we hear many things and we see many things. We also touch a lot of things. All this data is sent to our brain for processing. Now, the brain can’t handle all the data at once. So it focuses on some important data while it leaves out the insignificant bits. This selective processing of sensory input data is called Attention.
How it works?
Imagine you are watching a movie. The main character is talking to another character. Between the two, you are more focused on the main character. Why? Maybe the main character appears repeatedly, or maybe the film is named after him. The director decides how he will establish a character as the main character to his audience. That is, when you watch a film, your attention is only focused on what the director wants you to see
Similarly, your director is your brain. The brain guides your attention to the important things. When you are watching a news report, you want to know what the reporter is saying. So your eyes focus on the image of the reporter and your ears focus on his/her voice. What is going on in the background is not of importance to you. If a man walks by, far away behind the reporter, you might not notice him. This doesn’t mean that your eyes do not see the man. It’s just your brain that marks that information as insignificant.
Difficulty in maintaining attention…
So you might say, if the brain focuses only on what’s important, then how come people tend to lose their concentration easily. This happens to all of us. Yes, the brain focuses on certain information according to what we need, but events happening in our surroundings tend to divert our attention.
Let’s go back to the reporter. You didn’t notice the man walking far away behind. But you will notice if suddenly a building just behind the reporter falls. Sudden events have a tendency to grab our attention. And this tendency is a part of our natural fight or flight instinct. A sudden event is processed as a potentially dangerous situation by the brain. And this forces the brain to concentrate on the source of the danger so that an appropriate response can be sent back to rest of the body.
This instinctively forced concentration is the reason our brain switches focus onto a sudden event.
When loss of concentration is what you’re concerned with, it happens because the human brain is overloaded with thoughts. We think about a lot of things even when our we’re idling. This traffic jam of thoughts causes thoughts to randomly pop up in your head. And if you’ve ever observed your own mind, the popping of these random thoughts is often not in our control.
Thoughts are electrical impulses traveling at the speed of light! You would have to defy physics to be able to control thoughts. So the next time a “psychic” tells you they can control your thoughts, you can be sure they’re bluffing. No one can control your thoughts, not even you.
We sense a lot of different things at the same time. Maybe you are talking to a friend. You’re attentive to his voice and his face. You also notice his expressions. You’re also slightly aware of your surroundings but your attention is on to the conversation with the friend. A waiter comes and drops coffee on your shirt. Now your attention shifts first to the coffee on your shirt and the on to the waiter who is to be the subject of your rage.
Our brain prioritizes sensory data according to its present importance.When the waiter spilled coffee on your shirt, the brain assigned more present importance to the coffee on your shirt. And hence your mind focused on to the coffee and yanked out an appropriate response – scolding the waiter or perhaps asking him for the way to the washroom. Whatever your reaction be, your brain chooses to focus on what has most present importance.
So the importance of events varies with time and your brain shifts your focus accordingly.
Paying attention is rather difficult. More so when our brain tends to wander off every now and then. But understanding how our brains pay attention is easy. And attention is one of the key concepts of human psychology – it controls the flow of information into our brain and by extension, our personality and our behaviour.