Thursday, June 25, 2009

Wish I had a cool graphic... to explain Brain Rule #4: Attention

Looking back at the last two "Brain Rules" Summary posts and thinking... urgh, too much text. But then, I am trying to explain a book... to folks who won't have time to read it... but will they have time to read this? I don't know, but onward we plunge into Brain Rule #4. It's one of my favorites: We don’t pay attention to boring things. Thank you, Dr. Medina.

OK, so at first glance that seems really, really uninteresting. Of course we don't pay attention to boring things. That's why we call them boring!

But this whole chapter is about attention - that oh-so-elusive capactiy that teachers are constantly trying to get from their students. How does attention work? Is it really just a matter of mental discipline vs. bad habits? Or are there principles that teachers (and everyone else) can use to capture and hold the attention of others? Let's take a look at what Dr. Medina has to say.

First, one thing that seems sure from brain research is that the more attention the brain pays to a particular stimulus, the more elaborately it will be encoded, and the better it will be retained. Obviously, we have to get our students’ attention if we want them to learn anything.

Second we have a curious and slightly alarming fact for presenters and professors who stick to old-school lecture format: at 10 minutes into a presentation or lecture, most people begin to lose attention. It’s not our fault. Our brains just refuse to pay attention to the same stimulus for longer than that at one stretch. One guy lecturing = one stimulus. After 10 minutes, no matter how fascinating the subject matter, the brain labels the stimulus as boring, and we just can't pay attention to it any longer.

So a single, uninterrupted stimulus (like a lecture) is deemed boring by the brain. What else determines what we can pay attention to? Culture and life experience play a big role in here. Adults who grew up in totally different cultures and with different life experiences may simply not notice things (especially small details) that we think are important – like punctuation marks, for example. Of course, this is true on the flip side as well. If we were asked to function in a hunter-gather society, would we be able to track animals in the forest or quickly identify edible plants? Probably not. Even if we were taught what to look for, we’d have a hard time at first because the details that are relevant aren’t salient to us. It's going to take a lot of practice before those previously unimportant details can become the focus of our attention.

How does attention work? First, the brain must become aroused to a stimulus as something of interest or importance. It is then brought to our conscious awareness where we can pay attention to it. This happens in three stages:
  • Detection: the brain is in a constant state of surveillance for stimuli. When something important is detected, an alert is sent that activates the next stage.
  • Orientation: the brain and body orient towards the stimulus so we can focus our senses on picking up more information about it.
  • Reaction: as information comes in, the Executive Network processes it and decides what to do about it. The Executive Network controls reactive behavior.

Attention has been widely studied. What else do we really know about it? Four big ideas:

1. Emotions are the basis of attention. During an emotionally charged event, the amygdala releases dopamine (a neurotransmitter than aids memory), flagging the experience as one worth remembering. Emotionally intense times in our lives are seared into our memories. We can't forget them even if we want to, because the brain has encoded the information so deeply and richly. But if your content is not perceived as emotionally relevant, it’s unlikely to grab your students’ attention.

2. We remember meaning before details. Emotional arousal focuses attention on the “gist” of an experience (its relevance to us) at the expense of the details (precisely what happened). But memory of details can be enhanced through association – attaching them to the gist. Human knowledge is organized around core concepts or “big ideas” that guide thinking and give the brain a place to store related facts and details. If you don’t get the big ideas, you’ll never remember the details. So teachers need to focus on making sure everyone understands the "big ideas" in their subject area. If they do, the details will fall into place.

3. When it comes to conscious attention, the brain cannot multitask. It can only shift attention quickly from one thing to another – not pay conscious attention to multiple stimuli at once. Multitasking is a myth perpetuated by the fact that our attention shifts happen very quickly (tenths of a second) and seamlessly. We don’t really notice (pay attention to!) our brain’s gear shifting, so we convince ourselves we aren’t doing it. But in fact, we are biologically incapable of processing multiple attention-rich inputs simultaneously. A good working memory may allow a person to pay attention to several inputs one at a time in rapid sequence, but that's it. And we pay a price for trying to multi-task with a one-track mind. Attention shifting increases error rates and the amount of time required to complete a task – as much as 50% more time and mistakes. So keeping distraction low in the classroom does really make a difference.

4. The brain needs a break. We need time to put new information together, connect it to what we already know, and make sense of it. The most common mistake made by teachers is relating too much information without enough time devoted to processing that information. After a while, the brain will simply stop paying attention to any new information that’s coming in so that it can process the previous information. We shouldn’t overstuff our students with new information. They need time to “digest.”

So, one last thing: How can we get over the problem that we lose our students’ attention after 10 minutes? Use emotion. Do something emotionally relevant (yet still related to your content, such as a funny anecdote that illustrates an idea) at the 10-minute interval and you will recapture their interest. Short, emotionally relevant “asides” that don’t contain details that the students need to remember also allow the brain some of the processing time it needs.

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