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:
- 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.
- Shift the Focus to Content: Instead of focusing on the predictable event (the exam), shift your focus to the content you are studying.
- 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?”
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.