Attention is underrated

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Attention is a complex phenomenon. Thinking that we can simply address is probably naive. Worse, there is at least one pervasive myth about it. Trivial attention is probably overrated, but meaningful attention is underrated.

Attention, I’ll suggest, is how we pay conscious awareness to our thinking. We pay attention to the sensory stream that’s available, and as working memory is has limits, our attention chooses what ends up being in working memory (which is where we see conscious thought). This is the picture I paint in Learning Science for Instructional Designers, my recent book on how we learn. That’s how I learned it in grad school, and little seemed to change that.

As an aside, I suggest that the basic human information processing loop is something that is critical to understand. This is true for learning designers, but I would suggest there’s broader applicability. Knowing how information flows:

  • from sensory store to working memory via attention
  • from working memory to long term memory via elaboration
  • back to working memory via retrieval
  • and to decision from working memory

As a simplified story, shows how humans work in many ways. It gets more complex in important ways, but this is a key basis. On top of it comes aspects of how we think, and learn, but this is the core. It benefits anyone dealing with people, basically: UI, marketing, etc. In short, most everyone.

Recent pictures of the information processing loop suggest, however, that attention has a bigger purview. They have it influencing most of the above. Which may be more accurate, in that if you need to attend to what’s in working memory, and manage the process of attending to information while evaluating what decision to make. You must maintain conscious focus on what you want to learn.

The myth, which still persists, is that our attention span has dropped to 8 seconds. Which folks tout as less than that of a goldfish. (How do we know what the attention span of a goldfish is?) The origin of this myth came from StatBrain misinterpreting a study, and was amplified since it was published by Microsoft Canada. Marketing, mind you, not their research group! A myth I busted in a previous book!

There is apparently some evidence that our attention span has dropped (to 4o-something seconds, not eight), but we can still disappear into movies, novels, and games for hours. I reckon it’s about how engaging it is. Which, not completely surprisingly, is the topic of my most recent book, Make It Meaningful.

So, please, avoid the myths, and learn the core. Attention is underrated, as is the whole human information processing loop. Learn it, and benefit.

This blog was originally published on Learnlets.

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