Attention: Part 1

Your attention is like an excited puppy around new people. It’s pretty hard to get it to sit still and behave. If you do manage to settle it in one place, it doesn’t take long before it becomes distracted and starts bouncing around again. In this post I examine what attention is, with the help of a simple animation and look at why it is so hard to be in command.

Attention, like just about everything in the brain, is more complex than you might think, and it overlaps with a lot of other considerations about how the mind and brain work. There are a few ways to look at attention, and in this post I examine our limited capacity for holding on to thoughts at single moment, and how we focus on one. We look at whether you can attend to more than one thing at a time, and what matters to your brain when deciding what to focus on.  We also take a look at how your attention gets hijacked, both naturally and also as a result of manipulation by others.

I’ll be using a visual tool to illustrate this: the Awareness Wheel.

What is Attention? It is bringing your conscious mind’s abilities to bear on a particular task, thought or idea. On its own, your brain will find plenty of busy-work to keep itself occupied and distracted, and to meet your immediate needs. But deliberately pulling that attention onto some new subject of your choosing is not easy. It is not guaranteed that  your choice, out of all other tasks, will be the one in the spotlight.

A Hood with a Hole

Imagine you are wearing a hood that covers your face, but with a single eye hole cut in it. You can only focus on one thing at a time by making sure that the hole is aligned with your chosen subject. You are aware that there are many possible targets for your attention, but only one is clearly in view in the moment. This is your attention.

Could you focus on more than one thing at a time? You could cut more holes in the hood, but actually this does not help. You find your processing is still limited to one thing at a time, not because of how many holes there are, but because of your limited resources to look through more than one hole.

Sticking with the hood idea, imagine that, instead of looking out into the world and objects within it, you are able to see the inside of your mind, the thoughts (ideas, tasks, needs) that your mind is currently consciously aware of. These thoughts are arranged in a wheel of awareness. You can only remain aware of a few things at a time, and, with the hole-in-hood idea, you can only really be focussing attention on one of these at a time. Everything else is sat outside this awareness wheel. This is not to say that all other ideas have disappeared from your mind, or that you have forgotten them altogether. The rest of your brain is taking care of memories, regulating your body, monitoring the state of the world as your senses report it. It’s just that at this exact moment in time, you only have, say, five slots of awareness. For something else to pop in there and be a candidate of attention, one of the existing thoughts will get pushed out.

Level 0: The Awareness Wheel and attention

In the awareness wheel, there are five thoughts that you are aware of and your attention (the mask with a hole) concentrates its beam, daydream like, at none of them, just drifting in the centre. If you press on one of the tasks, your attention shifts towards it. The job gets smaller as your brain works on it. When it is complete, a slot is freed up and a new task pops in to take its place. At anytime you can choose not to focus on anything (daydream) or consciously focus on a thought.
How Many Thoughts Can You Hold?

The idea of having a limited number of thoughts we can hold onto or be aware of consciously at any point in time, is aligned with a concept called Working Memory. This takes us into a whole other topic that we should stay out of for this post, as it is not simple enough to be summarised neatly.

Let’s just accept the idea that a typical human mind can keep hold of between 4 and 7 “ideas” or thought chunks (sometimes more that 7) for short periods. With training some people can get even higher for specific tasks.

In our little model here, the Awareness Wheel, we will assume exactly 5 independent thoughts can be held in the wheel for a short period.

The Default Mode Network

Another idea we cannot go into in depth here is the default mode network. Our waking brain has two basic modes of operation, executive mode, where we are using our cognitive controls to direct our mental resources against tasks we consciously choose. We also have a separate mode, the default mode, in which we daydream, or in some way allow our brain to wander, and to make its own choices about what to process. There are theories that background problem solving and creativity emerge from the default mode, but this is disputed by some. It is pretty accepted to say that we have these two modes of thought.

The model here distinguishes between us using the mouse to direct our attention (executive mode) and allowing it to rest or to wander (default mode).


The awareness wheel, and the hole in the hood, are metaphors to help you think about how your mind works. They are absolutely not scientific models. They do not represent the real function, or structures in the brain, but they act as a stage where we can present some established ideas about what happens in the mind in a way that is accessible. They let you imagine what might be happening in your own mind, and the minds of others, as we navigate the world.

Attention and Tasks

Why do you have attention at all? If we had unlimited brain power and could focus as much effort as needed on each and every task, all at the same time, and we might not even need a word for attention. It is a name for the way we focus the limited brain power we have in the best way, to do whatever seems to be the most compelling, urgent or most attractive task at the time.
You might have a variety of mental jobs to do, such as:
  • Make a decision, perhaps choose which route to take to work.
  • Solve an everyday maths problem, like working out a budget for a trip.
  • listen (really listen) to a loved one tell you about their day.
  • check your phone for notifications/alerts.
  • Read a book.
  • Chop an onion for your evening meal.
Some of these have a definite end, while some are ongoing tasks that will not be finished anytime soon. In our model, we have tasks that can be completed, albeit some more quickly than others. In reality most big jobs, as far as your attention is concerned, have a built in limit, not necessarily to do with completing them.  For example, a task might be to read a single page of a book, or to work on the maths problem until my mind wanders. Even tasks that have an end, like chopping an onion, are likely to get interrupted before they are done. In the kitchen, the timer reminds you something needs to come out of the oven, or a pan boils over, and you may not go back to finish the onion until you have attended to a dozen other jobs. You may have remained aware of the half cut onion, or you may have forgotten it altogether until you see it sat there five minutes later. The awareness wheel of your brain doesn’t care too much about this, but you (the conscious you) probably does. There is an observed phenomenon,  that we can look at in a future post, called the Zeigarnik effect where our brains keep hold of incomplete tasks in ways that can be helpful but also detrimental.
Surely the point of working on one task or another is to get something done, to make progress. For your conscious mind at least, this is the case. So while you are focussed on a task, it should get closer to completion, and there should be a bit less left to do. Let’s measure this as efficiency – when you are focussed on a task, any task, your efficiency goes up. It might drop momentarily as you switch between tasks, or if you day dream. This is sort of how our attention intuitively feels – that as soon as we have a thought in our mental gaze, we are running at full brain power. This is also great because there is no penalty for switching between tasks. Switching between jobs, a little at a time is as good as working on them one at a time until each is completed.

Level 1: Fixed or Fidgety?

In this level we introduce a measure of efficiency – that is, how much “thinking” work gets done while we shift our focus between tasks or hold it still on a single task.

The measure for efficiency has two components:

  • A grey bar that rises and falls according to how efficiently you are processing thoughts, and
  • A pale blue graph that traces the history of recent efficiency level. This becomes more useful later on.
Thinking about Thinking
Metacognition is the psychological term for thinking about how we think. It’s one of those qualities that sets us aside from most of the animal kingdom. You do it so easily that it is hard to notice. You can be aware of what you are thinking about separately from the thinking itself. While you make a cup of tea (actions) you can be aware of the processes you are going through to make the cup of tea and plan out the steps (thinking/cognition), and then you can catch yourself thinking about how you make the cup of tea, and observe that mental process (metacognition). You can also use this for being aware of how someone else is thinking (or at least estimating what they may be thinking), based on how they behave and what you would be thinking if your were in their shoes. Most creatures can do neither of these things.
It is this power to think about thinking that lets you overcome you fidgety brain and focus your attention on something less exciting for a while, because you believe it is worth while. At least until your fidgety brain fights back.

Unlike the illustration above, your brain actually needs a bit of a warm up each time you switch tasks, even if you are switching quickly away and then back. In the instant you switch to a new task (or return to a previous one), you start with a low level of efficiency. As long as we stay focussed on that task for a while, the efficiency grows, until there you are fully engaged with it. The very second you are tempted by a new, potentially exciting task, or switch to a previous one, you lose the momentum you had in the first task, and start again on the new task. The result of this is that switching tasks has a penalty, in that you make less progress in the same time compared with just staying focussed.

Level 2: The cost of switching

So now, with this illustration, look at your efficiency.
Compare your efficiency if you switch around between thoughts, and then stick with a task for a while.
Do you notice something else a little strange? If you stick with a task until you hit maximum efficiency, it slowly starts to get lower again. You will have experienced this yourself. When you first start at a task and manage to fight off the distractions, you can feel that you get a benefit of the focus. You make more progress on the task the longer you stick at it, until … you don’t anymore. You may start to get a little bored, your mind welcomes distractions, and you can feel the payback from sticking at this one thing is starting to fade a little.
This is an important control your brain gives you. There is a reward for getting something done, but there is also a cost for ignoring other possibilities. Let’s call it boredom and we will measure it alongside efficiency.

Level 3: Boredom

We have a new measure, boredom. It takes time for boredom to build up as you stay focussed on a single task, but when it does, efficiency starts to drop. If you shift between tasks, boredom remains low, but so does efficiency.
You may notice that boredom follows efficiency, just a little bit behind. This delay is where you are at your most productive.
Remember, this is a simplified illustration, and of course it is possible to do something you care about for a long time without getting bored.
In the zone
It can often feel like a battle to overcome distractions and get a solid period of concentration on one task.  When you do manage it, and you feel engaged, challenged, and fulfilled by what you are doing, you can enter a state of flow. In this state, the normal intrusion of distractions, the feelings of boredom and neglect of other tasks, the nagging distant awareness of all the other un-attended-to tasks, fade.  You become unaware of time passing, even bodily signals of hunger and fatigue can be ignored. In our illustration this would be like one task filling the whole awareness wheel.
Unlike your conscious self, your brain might not consider getting things done efficiently to be a measure of success, at least not the most important one. An idea that we come back to time and again in Remented: your brain does not always act as a single organ with a single purpose – there are different aspects to your mind with very different drives and measures of what matters. The conscious you does not get consulted on a lot of this, while the automatic, hidden processes of your brain just get on with things.
Just going for maximum efficiency could run the risk of leaving some task in your awareness neglected. To your brain, a neglected task is wasting a valuable slot of awareness, and it will get replaced by something else of greater value.
There is another measure that matters to your brain – novelty, or seeking out new things. Regardless of how useful it may be, your mind will respond to anything appearing to be new, exciting or different. We are wired to look for the next interesting thing that hits our awareness. Our subconscious is predisposed to bring anything novel into the awareness wheel so that we see it and focus our attention on it, just in case it is a threat or an opportunity. We will look at that a bit more closely next.
Simply switching between tasks, or examining something new in our awareness scratches this itch – an urge to always be seeking something new, something more stimulating than the current task.
Of course while this satisfies the novelty itch, it leaves efficiency really low.

Level 4: Novelty and Neglect

So in our model we can now measure neglect, and novelty. Novelty will be lower, the longer you spend on one task. Neglect (of other tasks) will be high for the same reason. Those unloved tasks will drive up the neglect score, and lower the novelty score, until you share out the attention a little.
Keeping neglect and boredom low, while you keep novelty high, you won’t be able to keep efficiency up.
FOMO - Fear of Missing Out

Another way of describing the need for novelty, and perhaps a negative consequence of it, is the Fear of Missing Out (FOMO). It’s a sense that after weighing up the most useful, rewarding thing that you can be spending your time and attention on right now, there could be something even better, just outside your awareness. This leads you to explore the possibilities, and spend your attention checking for and evaluating other possible tasks, looking for the something better. At its worst it can prevent you from settling and committing to any one thing, or even if you do, feeling unsatisfied by it, feeling sure that you missed out on a more rewarding opportunity.

While this is not new, the permanent availability of myriad choices through mobile devices and social media brings more possibilities to the edge of our awareness, and within reach of consideration than ever before. It can take a certain strength of mind to resist the urge to check out all the possibilities, just in case there is a better one, and allow yourself to focus on what is in front of you now.


There is no doubt that our brains do many things at once, most of which we are unaware of. But when it comes to your conscious mind and your ability to share your attention among several things it gets more doubtful. If you play a musical instrument, play video games, or drive a car your do many, pretty sophisticated things at the same time. But part of why you are competent is because you have trained yourself to perform elements of each automatically. You can turn your attention to any one aspect, and the rest will carry on skilfully. When you are a beginner this is not the case, and you need your full attention on one part at a time, neglecting the others and making mistakes.

This can make us believe that we can multi-task pretty effectively. But experiments have shown that when it comes to tasks that require executive attention, it’s all or nothing. This premise sits at the centre of the attention wheel model used here. What we can so it switch quickly between tasks, relying on our working memory to hold them while our attention shifts temporarily to another job. There is a cost in efficiency, and a lot of the time it’s a price we are willing to pay.

Even if it is true that no-one truly multi-tasks, the ability to switch effectively and return to a task (our cognitive control) does vary quite a lot.


So far I have created an illusion that you or I are in command of our own attention, and that you consciously get to decide what to focus it on. This idea is called Top-Down processing – the executive part of your brain deicides what is most important and directs the various mental elements to carry it out.
However some things just demand to be paid attention to, and your conscious (executive) mind has little say in this. There is a good reason for this. For example, our senses, and the parts of our brain responsible for processing them, are very good at bringing to our attention loud noises, unexpected or sudden movement, bright colours, faces showing extreme emotions, sudden temperature changes, or unpleasant smells. What about awareness of pain or discomfort in our body? These Bottom-Up interventions are really important for survival and health. They may turn out to be unimportant, but we need to shine our attention on them at least briefly to decide if they need more investigation or action.
Why would this be? You have a number of basic drives. Some of these are obvious, like the need avoid danger, seeing to bodily needs like feeding, drinking, warmth, and longer term goals like finding a mate, being part of a secure group (family, tribe, or community). You brain’s interpretation of what is important is likely to be aligned to one of these primitive drives, over and above something more abstract like “get the report written before the deadline”. Anything that looks like it will or might satisfy one of these drives is likely to demand attention strongly, no matter how good your conscious intention to stay focussed may be.

Level 5: Bottom up thoughts

Faced with one or more bottom-up thoughts (shown in green) in your awareness wheel, you will likely find that your attention will naturally flit between them. You can consciously overpower this, and drag your focus to a top-down task that you want to prioritise (a blue task). 
When boredom kicks in though, this resolve will weaken, you lose control of your attention, and the compelling thoughts will win over. Once boredom is lowered, your resolve is restored.
Why do we make to-do lists? With our limited working memory slots, after 5 or so tasks, things just fall out of our awareness. A written list is a way of extending that to as many slots as we like. We off-load the job of remembering what to do next and free up slots to work on the current job. There is another good reason to make a list – it feels great to cross something off, to note that it is done. You can be really efficient without completing tasks – some tasks just have no end anyway. But it’s yet another psychological itch  we humans like to scratch – get something done, just for the pleasure of knowing it has gone away, and so it pays to get good at breaking big or endless jobs into small jobs that have a start and an end.
This is such a basic urge within us that product designers, the media, and advertisers will use this to grab attention. They might give us some small task to do that is finite, and has a known (preferably easy) action to complete it.  Once we do it, we get a psychological buzz (both from the joy of ticking off a completed task, and often because the designers will give us some positive feedback or reward for the task). This buzz increases the chance that in the future we will promote that type of task onto the awareness wheel and focus on it in. This kind of scorekeeping for future decision making is a whole other subject for another time. It does not matter to our automatic brain, how useful (or not) that task is to our bigger goals, as long as it appears to satisfy our basic drives.
If completing tasks feels so good, what about incomplete tasks? There is a sad, nagging feeling that comes from something just so big you cannot contemplate its end. Perhaps you avoid even starting it, or even if you do start, you get bored, distracted and willingly switch to something else, knowing those undone tasks are there is a burden, and psychologically draining.
So let’s measure completion, and also abandoned tasks: both good and bad feelings.

Level 6: Complete and Abandoned Thoughts

Here we start to track tasks that get abandoned and kicked out of the awareness wheel through neglect, and those that get enough attention to complete altogether.
To complete tasks you need sustained, efficient focus on it, but to prevent abandoned tasks, you need to keep neglect and novelty under control.
Pushing Your Buttons - how advertisers get to us
Some of the ideas here, might be the subject of recent psychological research, but we have observed many of the effects in Human behaviour for thousands of years. People have exploited these tendencies to entertain us, manipulate us, or play tricks on us for just as long. In fact advertisers, product designers, gambling organisations, magicians, media organisations (including traditional media like print but especially new technology and social media), food companies, and product designers have turned this into both a science and an art form.
The competition for our attention has never been greater. Attention is valuable because it can be used to influence what we do next, displace or challenge our priorities, affect our mood, what we purchase, how we vote, or our plans for the weekend.
We are all test subjects in the largest, perpetual psychology experiments ever. Large social media companies have such huge audiences that they can be testing many different techniques to capture and hold your attention, and influence behaviour, at the same time. They have big enough sample sizes to be pretty certain of the results. These are nothing like the rigorous Randomised Controlled Testing that scientists would run, but the results are testing marginal improvements measured only by short term outcomes, with no pressure to publish findings, undergo peer review, ethics committees or replication. And their huge cash balances help as well.
So where do these tasks or demands on our attention come from? If we can only be aware of 5 or so at a time, what is the mechanism? What decides which tasks make it in? 
Your conscious mind is unaware of most of what is going on in your brain and the world, because you have limited resources and you just cannot handle everything at once. So in the background your brain is monitoring your senses for information about the world around you (which includes your mobile phone and its notifications), remembering things, monitoring your body state, and decides that some task really needs a conscious decision or action. Something will pop to the front of the queue and make it into the precious inner circle, like a determined courtier with an urgent message, admitted to the royal court for the monarch’s pleasure. The fact that your subconscious is keeping so much out of your awareness is something you should be grateful for. Some forms of mental illnesses, disorders, and feelings of anxiety come from this gatekeeper process working differently.
The Unawareness (subconscious) wheel is monitoring many more possible thoughts, tasks and ideas. Its job is to make sure that you only concern yourself with anything of the highest value, greatest opportunity, or greatest threat, at any time, according to your primal drives and needs. With effort, a few of your own top-down tasks are there as well. In the illustration this is another, busier wheel, outside of the awareness wheel that fills in any vacant slots with what it considers to be the most important.
Take a look at the Thoughtsorter article for some more insights into how it’s your subconscious brain and not the conscious you, that’s really in charge of what you get to see and worry about, and why that’s a good thing.

Level 7: Unconscious awareness

Where do these thoughts come from? The outer wheel represents your unconscious mind, feeding your awareness wheel with thoughts as slots become free, or when something needs your attention.

The Awareness Wheel comes together as a game, where you can try different techniques to maximise efficiency, complete tasks, keep things interesting and avoid abandoned tasks.

The Attention Game

Now we have all the components for the attention wheel, play the game and see if you can achieve the highest possible score for efficiency over time.

Further Thoughts

Super-Power and Weakness
Your attention – the object of your conscious focus, is central to being a human. When we apply it to difficult problems and ambitious goals we can achieve amazing things. But to control it we are fighting against our inner animal, built in behaviours that also need attention. The wonders and curses of modern life – technology, media, entertainment, road signs, noise, crowds of people, advertising, all offer us important and tempting things to rest our mental gaze on. But they are  all competing for a limited resource, and you have to work pretty hard to make sure that the things important to you and your goals get some of that precious attention.
How big is your attention?

I keep reminding you in this post that you only really have one beam of conscious attention that you can shine on one task at a time.

The other dimension to consider is how long you can keep it focussed. You are constantly evaluating what is the most effective thing to be looking at, and it can take real conscious discipline to fight the urge to check some of your favourite distractions. In fact just receiving a buzz in your pocket or an audible ping from your phone means you have already lost command of that precious attention. You would do well to turn off as many automatic, environmental and human distractions as you can, and give yourself a time window (say 20-30 minutes) at the end of which you promise allow yourself to scratch all those itches. Then honour that promise. There are tools that help you manage distraction free working like this, or you can just setup your own good habits. Trust me, your brain will not do this on its own.

Twenty minutes many not seem very long but some experiments have shown that 2-3 minutes is the longest people of all ages can go without first signs of novelty seeking. Whatever the time scale is, boredom and lack of novelty will drive up the urge to seek some new distraction, and increase your temptation to respond to some bottom-up event.

Given that it takes discipline and willpower to maintain conscious focus on your higher goals, it’s worth mentioning the idea of ego depletion. This is a theory that your ability to fight urges is itself finite and variable, so that after successfully resisting temptations a number of times, your resolve may get weaker. It will also be affected by factors such as hunger, tiredness, and time of day. It is not a robustly proven or measured idea, but there are elements that seem to ring true. Sometimes you can walk past the cake, or ignore the alerts on your phone, and sometimes you just can’t.


Pay Attention

Attention does have a kind of currency. Without a doubt, our brain likes to account for how it spends energy very closely. It will do anything to minimise the time and effort put into getting a job done, and resents pushing something into the super-expensive conscious mind without a pretty good reason. For you (the conscious you) the reason might be really valid (perhaps revising for an exam), but your brain has its own way of evaluating, much more closely aligned to the drives for basic human needs (such as food, warmth, safety, social validation, sex, or security). 

For you to push some other task past past these urges, and that does not tick one of those boxes, is considered to be a pretty unattractive prospect to your brain. 

You should respect this whenever you ask or expect someone to pay attention to you. It may be for their brain (even if not for yours) a pretty expensive investment of resources. Make it worth their while.

What advertisers, app designers and other agents have got pretty good at is disguising their (probably not very important) agendas as something that does look and feel like it is relevant to one of your primal needs, and sneaking it into your attention.

Attention well spent?

If it’s so hard to get something under the attention spotlight, what counts as time well spent? Is it a big task or two completed, hundreds of little trivial jobs crossed off, or maybe just satisfying the itch for new things and defeating boredom? The answer is a healthy mix of all of them as far as your brain is concerned

You see by the later higher of the Attention wheel that we are keeping score of many different things, often in conflict with each other. For a happy brain, we need to mix and match a good score in one area, and the corresponding drop in another, with a swicth in prioirties from time to time. Everything in balance and moderation.

Play the advertisers' own game

Left to its own devices, your brain might well occupy your attention with easy, low-hanging busy work, and follow the lure of shiny adverts, or tempting clickbait in your social feed.

So maybe the secret to getting some of your bigger, trickier tasks squeezed into your attention’s agenda is to make big tasks look and behave a bit more like little, attractive tasks, appealing  to the same success buttons that those distractions target.

You can, for example, break a big, daunting task into small tasks, each with a definite end.  Make sure the tasks use skills you know you have (so that you can get started without thinking too hard). Reward any time you do spend on these tasks in small ways (maybe by giving yourself permission to enjoy some of the naughty but nice distractions you are holding back). If you forever deny your brain a little reward, they just get more tempting. Remind yourself why you are putting in this effort – give your brain a big, colourful, sweet-smelling fantasy of what it will be like if you achieve it. Your hidden brain really cares about this stuff. Think about the most ridiculously overblown, poetic, aspirational visuals in a perfume or car advert and you’ll get the idea.  But it has to be something that appeals to you.

We don’t talk about it much here but there is a whole system of rewards, anticipation of future rewards and scorekeeping of how good (or not) something turned out to be.  Your brain uses these to make any decision about what to do out of a set of possibilities. That’s a topic for another day. For now the trick is to make your brain want the same things that you do, and give it a little of what it needs to keep it happy.

Other Perspectives

Alternative views

Our brains do not all work the same way. Children’s attention will be different to an adults for example. The cognitive control so important for getting top-down command of your attention is largely powered by the prefrontal cortex, which does not finish developing until mid-twenties in most people. That said, younger people have much faster response to the cognitive control that they do exercise, so their ability to flit between tasks is greater than those of an older age. The Distracted Mind book, discussed below, cites studies and findings in this area. These mental abilities decline with normal ageing throughout our lives.

You may be predisposed to highly organised thinking, or you may be one of those people who easily drift off into day dreaming, allowing your default mode to run things more often than others.

You may have tendencies characterised by Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, whether diagnosed or not. You may simply find that your appetite for novelty is greater, and ability to command top-down tasks onto your mental agenda is lower than others. While this can lead to difficulties in highly regulated environments (like school), these tendencies can help those in creative, adventurous or entrepreneurial pursuits be less inhibited, and more open to opportunities.

A large part of the findings in the Distracted Mind book, and the studies on which it is based, are around what you can do to enhance our cognitive control – that is our ability to be in command of our mental agenda more of the time. They do find that certain practices can help. These include:

  • Managing how much and when we allow mobile and social media distractions to be available to us
  • Taking breaks and walks in natural spaces
  • Practicing certain kinds of video games that have competition for mental resources

See the section below for more information on the book and the work of the authors.

What can go wrong?

Some mental illnesses and disorders are characterised in part by a sense of being overwhelmed by an awareness of everything that is not getting done, and unable to actually do any of it.  Part of this is a kind of choice paralysis, where there seems to be no filter holding back that, normally subconscious monitoring of “everything else”. All of the tasks that we are aware of may seem undoable, un-start-able, and daunting. It is likely that our most basic mental habits will fill the awareness wheel with thoughts that seem to compensate for low mode, like the appealing prospect of staying in bed, or avoiding contact with others where your sense of low self worth would be more prominent (at least to yourself), or perhaps the temptation for unhealthy eating, just so your mind can get a buzz from the great sugary , or salty taste.

Science and Sources

This article tries to avoid the language of brain science (without straying too far from it’s path) and uses a visual model that relates your own experiences to what science thinks is going on in your mind and brain. The science matters a lot though, and if you want to know more there are some sources here.

Further Reading
A lot of the ideas around our attention are explored with a scientific foundation in Adam Gazzaley and Larry D Rosen’s book The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World.
They thoroughly explore the brain’s capacity for attention and processing. They go on to explore how our minds are coping with the modern world especially the extraordinary effects of always-connected devices with attention-sapping apps. They finish with a look at if and how we can fight back.
It is not a trivial read, but it is very robust and comprehensive, and gives you plenty to think about.
One of the authors, Adam Gazzaley, talks here about some of the themes he has researched.



The other author, Larry D Rosen, speaks here about some of their findings on attention.



Another book that is perhaps an easier read, uses the art of the magician to explore psychological and neuroscience aspect of our wiring and behaviour. In Slights of Mind, the authors Stephen Macknic, and Susana Martinez-Conde, conclude that magicians have been carrying out and learning from experiments with their audiences for hundreds of years, learning tricks that Neuroscience is only just catching up with. It’s a fun look at magic tricks, but with a serious look at the brain behaviours behind both the magician and the audience.
And a Little More Reading
The Dana Foundation recently published this post on their Cerebrum Blog.

Multicosts of Multitasking

It covers multitasking specifically but along the way cites the neuroscience and studies relevant to attention generally. It stops short of advising about exactly how the findings related to how we might better command our attention in these distracting times, but signposts possible future directions for study. It does echo many of the ideas above about there being a cost to switching and that top and down and bottom up modes of attention priorities compete for control.
And Even More...
In this BBC Radio 4 episode of  All in the mind , researcher Celia Andreu Sanchez from the Autonomous University of Barcelona looks at the changes in movie editing techniques between the 1940’s and now, and effects this has on an audience’s attention. The conclusion is that today’s very fast cutting (not just in action films) leads to better attention grabbing and holding (good for the box office), but if you want the audience to engage with a theme or idea, and remember it later, you need to slow back down again.
Asked if there was a worry that young people, raised on the fast edits, would have shorter attention spans, Celia pointed out that YouTube videos, which account for a large chunk of young peoples’ screen time, are typically uncut single takes!


I have mentioned a few times how advertiser, product designer and others use our natural behaviour to grab our attention and use it for their goals (for example to change our opinion, or make us desire a product). Sometimes we are complicit in this, and sometimes the effect is totally desirable to us, but it is easy to see how these techniques can be used in quite cynical and exploitative ways.
In the book Hooked, Nir Eyal gives product and app designers insights into our behaviours and how products can best align with and exploit them. Here is his TEDx talk where he shares some of these insights.


NOTE – just the day after I posted this, I became aware of this post by Nir Eyal reviewing the “Distracted Mind” book that was so influential for me in this post. It should be no surprise that one of the worlds experts on designing for attention should be influenced by the worlds’ experts on the science of attention.

Thank You for Your Attention!