Attention Exercises

The Economy of Human Attention: Engineered for Surprise


Continuing our exploration into the relationship between reality, information, surprise, and boredom, this article narrows its focus to the mechanics of human attention. More than a cognitive function, attention serves as a complex system inherently biased towards identifying anomalies and surprises. This article offers two exercises to help you better understand and control your attention in various situations.

Exercise 1: Regaining Focus Through Surprise

When you find it difficult to concentrate, especially on tasks with high predictability like studying for a set-date exam, it’s often because your attention system sees no element of surprise. Here’s how to recalibrate your focus:

  1. Identify the Predictability: Acknowledge that your attention is waning because the outcome is too predictable. For example, your exam is tomorrow at 10:00 a.m., a fact set in stone that offers no surprise.
  2. Shift the Focus to Content: Instead of focusing on the predictable event (the exam), shift your focus to the content you are studying.
  3. Invoke Curiosity: Take any topic within your study material and ask yourself a question that ignites curiosity. For instance, if you’re studying science, ask: “Why is the sky blue?”
  4. Engage Your Attention: When you pose such questions, you introduce an element of wonder and surprise into the task at hand. It’s as if your attention system overhears your internal query and becomes interested.
  5. Sustain Focus: Keep introducing new questions and ‘wonder points’ as you go through the material to maintain a high level of engagement. This tactic harnesses your brain’s natural inclination for surprise to help you focus on what matters.

Exercise 2: Redirecting Unwanted Attention Through Time Awareness

When your attention is dominated by frightening or disturbing thoughts, the instinct might be to actively push these thoughts away. However, this often proves counterproductive. Instead, try this approach to naturally redirect your attention:

  1. Acknowledge the Moment: When a disturbing thought captures your attention, simply write down the current time. You can jot it down on your hand, in your phone, or on a post-it note.
  2. Do Not Resist: Instead of trying to make the thought go away, acknowledge its presence. Do not engage in a struggle to remove it, as this usually amplifies its impact.
  3. Observe the Shift: Later on, you will usually discover—often by accident—that your attention has moved on to something else. It could be minutes or hours, but your attention will naturally shift due to its inherent need for novelty.
  4. Understand the Transience: The exercise serves to demonstrate the transient nature of disturbing thoughts and emotions. Even though it may feel like the unsettling thought will dominate you indefinitely, the reality is that your attention is designed to seek out new stimuli.
  5. Gain Confidence: Over time, this practice will instill a confidence that no matter how intense the disturbing thought feels, your attention will naturally move on, simply because it’s engineered to seek novelty and surprise.


Human attention operates on a currency of surprise. The exercises provided offer practical tools for understanding and directing your attention. Whether you need to focus on a task or redirect your mind from unsettling thoughts, understanding the economy of human attention equips you with the skills to navigate your cognitive landscape more effectively.

Author: John Rector

John Rector is an AI Futurist who predicted the next word in business™, starting with his notable paper from 2015, "Mommy, What's a Cashier?" Drawing upon 40 years of experience in the practical applications of high technology, he assists clients in converting uncertainty into strategic advantages within a one-to-six-year framework. With leadership roles including IBM executive and co-founder of e2open, he has a diverse and impactful background. In the AI sector, he has set benchmarks through his contributions to Mind Media Group and Florrol, pioneering AI-based services and content generation. His investment initiative, Waterway Ventures, is committed to advancing promising AI startups. His creative ventures include founding Bodaro and graphic design studio Palm ❤️. In education, he has launched Nextyrn, which uses AI for personalized learning experiences, and in art, he leads Potyn, an initiative using AI to create bespoke pieces. His ever-expanding portfolio features companies like Nozeus, Infinia, Blacc Ink, and Maibly. Operating from Charleston, SC, his current focus involves partnering with individuals and enterprises to develop innovative business models and processes for the rapidly approaching age of AGI.

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