Paying attention to the most important things in life is an ongoing challenge for almost everyone we know! But it’s not a new problem. More than a century ago, philosopher and psychologist William James recognized that we cannot focus on everything that competes for our attention. You may recognize one of his most enduring quotes:
The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook. – William James
Several of our previous articles have stressed the importance of self-awareness and self-regulation (e.g., When Hyperfocus Works). This current article focuses on the capabilities and limitations of our brains when sights and sounds compete for our “undivided attention!”
What Happens When You Aren’t Paying Attention?
Most people understand that it is important to pay attention to the right things. Yet, the consequences of focusing on the wrong things vary widely. Sometimes, very little is at stake. At other times, failing to pay attention to specific things can potentially result in:
- Unmet short-term or long-term goals
- Losing a job
- Being placed on academic probation (or worse)
- Strained or broken relationships
- Accidents that lead to injuries (or even death)
As a dramatic example of how inattention can be fatal, the number of pedestrian deaths in the United States has been steadily rising since 2010. While impaired drivers contribute to some of these deaths, more and more pedestrians have died from accidents when walking and looking at their cellphones.
Paying Attention to What You Hear and See
The two primary senses involved in paying attention are hearing and seeing. Well-known artists and respected song writers often share what they see and hear in a way that grabs our attention. They seem to have a gift for noticing things that many of us tend to miss!
For example, singer/songwriter (and former Beatle) Paul McCartney used to hang out at a bus terminal in Liverpool, England. He waited there to meet up with fellow songwriter John Lennon. McCartney’s observations about the quirky behavior of ordinary people (e.g., a banker, a fireman, and a barber) led to some engaging lyrics. One of my favorite lines is in the hit song, “Penny Lane:”
Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes. There beneath the blue suburban skies, I sit. And meanwhile…Paul McCartney-John Lennon
Many McCartney-Lennon songs were about love, philosophy, or their world-view. Yet, Penny Lane was simply about what McCartney noticed (and paid attention to) as he waited for Lennon to join him at a Liverpool bus terminal!
Of course, most of us are not artists or songwriters! In fact, if I were a college student, paying attention to the quirky behavior of others in the library would probably not be the best use of my time. That would be a distraction. And it would take my attention away from a primary goal of writing a paper or studying for an exam!
How Our Brain Pays Attention
In the early 1950s, air travel was becoming more and more affordable. Subsequently, air traffic controllers started struggling with how to stay focused on planes that were taking off and landing at U.S. airports.
To help understand why and how air traffic controllers were “overloaded” with information, several research studies occurred. These studies shed light on how our brains sort out “high priority information” and how the brain can keep from getting distracted by “competing” information. The research focused on what happens in our brains when we process auditory inputs from multiple sources.
- Selective Attention –The brain can isolate (or selectively focus) on one or more sets of auditory inputs without getting distracted by “competing” sounds and information.
- Bottlenecking– The brain can choose what information to “take-in” and what to “filter out.” It can act like a “bottleneck,” restricting the flow of information. It lets some information in, while keeping out other information.
- Filtering and Buffering – Some researchers believe that the brain filters out “competing information,” putting it in a “buffer” in short-term memory.
- Attenuating – Most researchers believe that the brain selects a primary focus of attention, attenuating (or weakening) competing inputs. Think of it like turning up the speaker on your radio while turning down the speaker on your TV set. Both sounds are still “audible,” yet the brain focuses much more on the primary radio input.
These studies focused mostly on paying attention to auditory input. Similarly, other studies have focused on paying attention to visual input. For example, researchers have studied how an automobile driver can focus primarily on a traffic light (including the color of that light) while approaching a busy intersection. Simultaneously, the brain screens out less important visual details, such as the color or make of cars that are approaching.
What Have We Learned About Paying Attention?
The takeaways for me from this research are as follows:
- Our brains do NOT focus equally well on two or more inputs at the same time.
- We need to be aware of what we are paying attention to.
- Awareness can help us “regulate” where our primary attention is going.
- Setting an intention helps us focus our attention.
Clinical studies show that people with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are at particular risk for paying attention to the wrong things. These studies show how “competing inputs” could be especially distracting for people with ADHD.
Similarly, clinical studies also show that people with hearing difficulties or auditory processing deficits have more difficulty staying focused on “primary” input. They also have more difficulty attenuating (shutting out) competing sounds and words. Researchers found that people with no measurable hearing loss are better at separating out competing inputs than those with hearing loss in one ear.
Are You Paying Attention?
Do you have a clear intention about what you want to pay attention to? Are you aware when you are not paying attention? Do you try to focus your attention on more than one thing at a time? When you find yourself not paying attention, how do you get back on track? Do you have particular challenges – such as ADHD or auditory processing disorder – that make it more challenging for you to pay attention?
Through coaching and coaching support services, we specialize in helping college students, young adults, and other adults focus their attention on the “right things” and get things done! Contact us today to explore coaching as a tool to help you or your young adult child pay attention to the right things!