Attention (Emotions, Meaning, Multi-Tasking and Timing)

. There are some limitations as the brain takes a lot of energy to operate and can only hold a limited amount of information. Thus the less you hold in your mind at one time, the better.

. When making choices, it is best to compare only 2; the brain can hold more than this but the efficiency of decision-making is reduced, ie accuracy and performance decline.

. If people's focus is split continuously (sometimes called continuous partial attention), the impact is constant and intense mental exhaustion results. For example, constant e-mailing and text messaging reduces mental capability by an average of 10 points on an IQ test (it is 5 points for women and 15 points for men). The effect is similar to missing a night's sleep.

. Thus "always on" or "24/7"is not the most productive way to work as the brain is being forced to be alert too much and this increases the allostatic load, ie stress hormone and other factors relating to a sense of threat. Furthermore, this places unnecessary wear and tear on the brain as it is in a constant crisis of adrenalized fight-or-flight mechanism.

. Even though pushing yourself in the short term has some immediate benefits, it's counter-productive, especially on the working memory as it can hold limited amounts of data for immediate focus. It is thought that the most energy-intense items will be lost first and these are most likely the conceptual items in the cognitive function area.

. Some ways to handle this include converting more functions into routines, prioritising information and mixing up your attention functions, such as language, writing, visual, etc

i) converting more functions as routines ‐ practise specific activities repeatedly until they come embedded so that they are not managed by your prefrontal cortex, eg skills in driving a car become automatic after much practice). Once activities become routines, they are stored in the basal ganglia region of the brain (it recognises, stores and repeat patterns or maps that are readily available for use.)

Data moves along white matter connections to different parts of the brain. The prefrontal cortex is well-connected, while the amygdale has more limited connections to other regions:

"...The well-wired basal ganglia picks up patterns not only in physical movement, but also in light, sound, smell, language, events, ideas, emotions and in all other perceived stimuli..."

David Rock, 2009

Research has shown that only 3 repetitions of a routine is enough for it to be stored or hard-wired (longer term potentiation). The basal ganglia can pick up patterns without conscious awareness. It is highly efficient at executing patterns. In fact, the more you use a pattern, the less attention you will need to pay to doing this task and the more it will allow you to focus on other things.

Remember: you can switch attention between tasks, and for long-term memory to form, close attention needs to have been paid to the information.

ii) prioritising information - there is a queue of decisions in the pre-frontal cortex for conscious mental processing. One decision may be holding up other decisions and can form a bottleneck. Thus if a thought keeps recurring, it can hold up other decisions.

"...Decisions that get caught in queues......are one of the great wasters of your brains resources..."

David Rock, 2009

There is a path of least resistance in decision making and thinking tasks. To help the brain, you need to prioritise your decision-making and thinking process, as much energy and effort can be wasted trying to reduce unresolved issues in the decision-making queue.

iii) mixing up your attention functions - schedule work according to the type of mental task required. For example, if you have several things to do at once, limit the time you spend on this. Consciously decide how long you will divide your attention on each item and then go back to focusing on the first one, eg deciding when to review your e-mails

Furthermore, new concepts take up more space than known ideas; memory starts to degrade when we try to hold more than one idea simultaneously; need to focus on pivotal elements of the information; group information into chunks whenever possible; work first on the most important, rather than easiest.

. It is important to be focused and pay attention for learning. The greater the focus and attention-paying, the more strongly the information is encoded and retained in the brain. This is linked with previous experience (memory) as it can guide us to what is important.

. There are 4 main behaviourial characteristics that are linked with attention (emotions, meaning, multi-tasking and timing)

i) Emotions

The stronger the emotions, the better remembered the event will be, ie it stays longer in our memories and is recalled with greater accuracy. It is linked with the prefrontal cortex (executive functions), cingulated gyrus (filtering function) and amygdala (creates and maintains emotions). The amygdale uses neurotransmitter dopamine which is released in an emotionally-charged event and this aids memory and information processing.

Emotionally-charged events are divided into 2 categories, ie those that everyone experiences identically and those that no 2 people experience the same. Usually the latter come from external stimuli and come directly from our evolutionary heritage; the response is based on the threat and energy usage. Emotional events from external stimuli are easier to handle.

The brain asks these types of questions when confronted, ie

- Can I eat it?

- Can it eat me?

- Can I mate with it?

- Will it mate with me?

- Have I seen it before?

- Was my previous reaction adequate?

Some of the best ways to trigger emotions like laughter, fear, happiness, nostalgia, etc is via stories, narratives, jokes, anecdotes, etc

ii) Meaning before detail

The brain remembers the emotional elements of an experience better than any other aspect. This emotional focus means that it is at the expense of peripheral details. In other words, we remember the generalized pictures of events or concepts but fail to recall the details.

Memory is enhanced by creating associations between concepts. For example, words presented in a logical sequence are better remembered than words placed randomly, ie around 40% better.

"...Expert knowledge is not simply a list of facts and formulas that are relevant to their domain; instead, their knowledge is organised around core concepts of big ideas that guide their thinking about their domain..."

John Bransford as quoted by John Medina, 2009

iii) The brain cannot multi-task

The thinking part of the brain naturally focuses on concepts sequentially, ie one at a time. Thus we are able to task switch, ie change from one task to another, but not multi-task, ie do more than 1 task together. This can be time consuming and dangerous, eg using mobile phone while driving. The cell phone usage is a distraction that impairs driving, with the result that you are driving like you are drunk. Cell phone drivers are second slower to brake in an emergency, slower to return to normal speed and less cautious in their following distance behind another car.

On the other hand, we can do auto-tasks like walking and talking at the same time.

Research (Medina 2009) has shown that a person who is interrupted takes 50% longer to accomplish a task and makes more errors, ie 50%. This error rate can be reduced if you are familiar with the task.

iv) The brain needs a break

Too much information with not enough time to absorb it tires the brain. The brain needs break to digest information, especially if it is new.

You have seconds to get people's attention and only 10 minutes to keep it. The brain needs a break and/or alternative stimulation after 10 minutes.

The idea of giving the brain a break every 10 minutes is important for at least 3 reasons

- allows brain time to check the importance of the information

- the brain processes meanings before detail

- re-enforce message by repetition, ie the linkages between the 10 minute segments need to be clearly and repetitively explained.

NB For the brain, imagining something can be just as powerful as doing it. For example, people who have chocolate addiction can use their imagination, ie pretend they are eating chocolate and getting the same feelings as it eating it.

In summary

. You can focus on only one conscious task at a time and need to reduce distractions and/or task switching

. Switching between tasks uses energy and can result in more mistakes. Also multi-conscious tasking will result in reduced accuracy and performance; best to do one at a time

. Multitasking is easiest when executing known, embedded routines

. Need to prioritise decisions and thinking processes to reduce the number of decisions required

. Combine active thinking tasks with automated, embedded routines

There are competing parts in the brain, eg

- conflict of thoughts (positive v negative)

- keeping a secret causes stress as one part of the brain wants to be sociable and tell others but another part wants to keep the secret

- busyness (lower performance of pre-frontal cortex (thinking) but stimulates amygdala (emotions)) v status (feels good)

.As the brain likes certainty and favours novelty, need to be curious & show interest

. Moral rule of thumb, eg you shouldn't cheat, steal, torture people, push people to their deaths, etc. These are general rules that you don't need to think about, ie taken for granted (don't require activity from executive function of the brain)

More on Attention
  • Your mind develops depending upon how & what you focus on. If you change the narrative, if you are changing the brain. The mind can be shaped by experience, especially social interaction, when emotional feelings control your thoughts.
  • Attention is easily distracted. The main reason for this is the nervous system is continuously processing, reconfiguring and reconnecting the trillions of connections in your brain continuously (ambient neutral activity). A similar process occurs when we sleep. There is a stream of thoughts and images merging into conscious awareness but most of our thoughts never get much attention and disappear into the background. Research has shown that people on average hold a thought for only 10 seconds.
  • It has been found that when people are distracted by internal thoughts when doing difficult tasks, attention lapses and this reduces performance by activating the medial prefrontal cortex.
  • Distraction is usually a result of thinking about ourselves which activates the default network in the brain.

"...when you lose external focus, this default brain network activates and your attention goes to more internal signals, such as being more aware of something that may be bothering you..."

David Rock, 2009

. The prefrontal cortex takes up around 4% of the total brain volume and is central to conscious decision-making but the rest of the brain is bigger and stronger. Thus we need to strengthen the networks linking the prefrontal cortex with the rest of the brain.

. One theory suggests as a survival mechanism the brain has learnt to orient attention to anything unusual, novel, etc. The part of the brain involved in this is called anterior circulated cortex. Sometimes it is referred to as the error detection circuit as it is activated when you notice something contrary to what is expected, eg making a mistake or feeling pain. If this circuit is used too much, it brings a state of anxiety or fear.

"...This partly explains humanity's universal resistance to widespread change: big change has too much novelty..."

David Rock, 2009

. There is not enough glucose (energy) available for intense thinking, so you lose your train of thought. Some examples: you might be trying to hold too much information simultaneously, holding more than four concepts at once, too many decisions in the "queue", short-term memory is full, etc, so need to improve focus by inhibiting the wrong things from coming into focus. Thus we need to switch off all communication devices during any thinking work. Your brain prefers to focus on things right in front of you as it takes less effort.

"...Blocking out external distractions altogether, especially if you get a lot of them, seems to be one of the best strategies for improving mental performance..."

David Rock, 2009

. By focusing, people can inhibit their natural responses or impulses by activating the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex. When you inhibit a response (motor, cognitive, emotional, etc), this area becomes active and acts as a brake on other areas of the brain that involve language, emotions, movement and memories. This is sometimes called self-control. Additionally, the more you activate the brake, the less effective it is, ie each time you stop yourself from doing something, the next impulse is harder to stop. This helps explain why dieting can be so hard and why, when you are tired, hungry or anxious, it's easier to make mistakes and harder to inhibit the wrong impulses.

. Inhibiting distractions is a core skill for staying focused. To avoid distractions, you need to develop the habit of vetoing behaviours early and quickly, before they take over. Language is also important: having explicit language to deploy gives you more veto power.

. Need to develop explicit language maps within the prefrontal cortex for experiences that were previously implicit, so that they are now controlled, ie explicit. We need to learn to inhibit impulses before they turn into action, eg speaking about ideas activates more circuits than merely thinking about them, which makes it easier to stay focused, ie the network is more robust.


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