Many people make this mistake while taking what they think is a break.
Give your attention a massive boost by understanding why this well-known trick works.
Selective attention in psychology refers to how we focus our attention on some things and ignore others — one example is the attentional spotlight.
The definition of selective attention in psychology is focusing on one object or stimuli to the exclusion of all others.
Since attention is a limited resource and there is so much information coming into our brains at any one time from our senses, we have to choose what we pay attention to.
Selective attention is most often studied in psychology in our vision and hearing.
For example, the cocktail party effect is a great example of the power of auditory selective attention.
The cocktail party effect in psychology is our impressive and under-appreciated ability to tune our attention to just one voice from a multitude.
However, vision has proved an incredibly rich area for psychology research on selective attention.
Example: visual selective attention
To understand how selective attention in psychology works take the example of visual selective attention.
Much of the time our attention is focused in the same way we are looking, but not always.
In fact, we probably spend a lot more of our time than we might imagine with our ‘mind’s eye’ looking in a different direction to our eyeballs.
Eye direction normally coincides with where attention is directed but it is such an important social signal that disguise is sometimes necessary.
Take these examples of selective attention:
- People in close proximity like rail commuters who can watch each other by adopting a fixed gaze and letting their selective attention wander around the visual field.
- Parents keeping tabs on their children out of the corner of their eye while looking at their conversational partner.
- Skilled sports people hiding their intended passes or moves by using their peripheral vision rather than looking directly.
The attentional spotlight in psychology
Although this phenomenon of selective attention is a common everyday experience, the way attention moves around the visual field has been a tricky one for scientists to examine.
Up until the 1970s psychologists found it very difficult to prove experimentally that attention could move without the eyes.
Then an explosion of experiments in the 70s provided just the evidence scientists had been waiting for.
These led to one of the most famous metaphors for visual attention: the attentional spotlight.
This is the idea that our selective attention moves around our field of vision so that the things falling within its beam are processed preferentially.
Selective attention can be both consciously directed and hijacked by unconscious processes so that, for example, we can avoid getting hit by buses.
Selective attention moves fast
One classic experiment that finds the ‘attentional spotlight’ zipping away from eye direction was carried out by Professor Michael Posner and colleagues at the University of Oregon (Posner, Snyder & Davidson, 1980).
Across a series of different conditions testing selective attention they had participants press a button as quickly as possible when they saw a light appear.
In some conditions participants were given a little hint about where the light was going to appear, either they saw:
- an arrow in the centre pointing left or right,
- or a box at the edge indicating where the light would appear.
These hints were provided just a fraction of a second before the flash of light so people didn’t have time to move their eyes (this was checked using electrooculography) but had to flex their selective attention.
The question researchers were interested in was whether people were faster to respond to the light when given a clue about its position, compared with no clue.
What they found was that people were about 50 milliseconds (one-half of a tenth of a second) faster to detect the light when given a clue than not — a significant advantage.
What is selective attention?
What this suggests is that something other than the eyes such as selective attention, which don’t have time to shift, has moved to the area where the light was expected.
From experiments like this Posner and others argued that it is our selective attention moving around the visual field, often remarkably independent of our actual gaze direction.
Indeed, even if we’re looking directly at something, and when we don’t expect to see it, we’re no more likely to notice it than if it appears on the edge of our vision (Posner, 1980).
Selective attention is a fact oft-used by magicians (see the psychology of magic, especially part 2 cognitive illusions).
So, what is selective attention in this context?
It appears that selective attention can be likened to a spotlight roving across our vision like a virtual eye, just picking out the things in which it is interested; it’s not as attached to where we point our eyes as we might imagine.
Turning off the spotlight
Just how important the attentional spotlight is to selective attention in our everyday functioning is made all the more obvious by patients who seem to ‘ignore’ one half of their visual fields.
After suffering brain damage, usually to the right hemisphere, they start ignoring or neglecting everything on the left (because of the way the right hemisphere processes information from the left visual field, and the left hemisphere from the right visual field).
Despite both eyes being physically functional, because of the damage to the visual processing centres, it’s as though the attentional spotlight can’t travel over to the left hand side.
Technically, they can see to the left but crucially they don’t notice anything.
People with this problem might shave only one side of their face or only eat half of the food on their plate.
Is selective attention really like a spotlight?
The attentional spotlight theory isn’t the only metaphor to be used to describe the way selective attention moves across the visual field.
One popular cousin of the spotlight theory is the zoom-lens metaphor.
Rather than a beam of attention of a set size, Eriksen and St. James (1986) argue that we zoom in and out depending on the task.
There is also evidence, such as LaBerge (1983), which supports this model.
Like many metaphors, though, it’s not wise to take the attentional spotlight or the zoom-lens too literally.
Subsequent findings examining the details have questioned several aspects of these theories, but there are two main objections to both:
- Studies suggest that attention can be split between two locations: this doesn’t easily fit with the idea of a single attentional ‘beam’ or ‘lens’.
- Research has shown that we can actually process visual stimuli outside the spotlight/zoom-lens quite thoroughly. Similarly patients with hemispheric neglect have been found to process visual information presented to their ‘neglected’ side.
Although there are problems with the attentional spotlight and zoom-lens as metaphors, they still provide a useful insight into how our selective attention can move independently of the eyes.
The evidence also scientifically confirms the everyday experience of fixing the gaze and still being able to ‘look around’.
Multitasking means working on two or more tasks at the same time, which psychological research finds is bad for productivity, mostly.
Multitasking, doing two or more tasks at once, mostly gets a bad rap from psychological research.
Examples of multitasking include:
- texting while driving,
- watching TV while working,
- and watching YouTube while writing emails.
Multitasking is something that’s best avoided for any task that needs concentration.
Humans don’t multitask well, unless one of the activities is automatic and doesn’t require much conscious processing.
Multitasking is bad for productivity
Multitasking is distracting and once it becomes a habit may make people more distractible.
Multitasking tends to slow people down because switching between tasks has a cost.
People generally work quicker when they focus on one task at a time and do it properly.
Multi-taskers tend to make more mistakes: think about the modern trend for using a mobile phone while driving.
Changing from one activity to another interferes with brain activity.
This makes the end result much worse than if we focus on one thing at a time.
Some research even suggests that media multitasking is associated with emotional problems, like anxiety and depression, as well as cognitive problems, like poor attention.
Sometimes, though, multitasking cannot be avoided.
And psychologists have found simple ways to improve multitasking for those multitaskers among us.
1. Physical fitness
Neuroscientists found larger gray matter volume in several brain areas of those who had higher cardiorespiratory fitness.
These brain areas help boost both reasoning and problem-solving.
2. Short breathing exercise
The mindfulness task simply involves counting groups of nine breaths: nine inhales and nine exhales.
Heavy media multitaskers benefit most from simply counting their breaths, psychologists have found.
Training in multitasking
Despite all the disadvantages of multitasking, the fact that people frequently attempt to multitask means we have a capability that can be explored.
What levels of multitasking might we be capable of with effort?
A classic 1976 study which taught two people to read and write at the same time hints at our considerable potential to multitask (Spelke, Hirst & Neisser, 1976).
Professor Elizabeth Spelke and colleagues at Cornell University wanted to know whether we can really divide our conscious attention between two demanding tasks, like reading and writing.
To find out they recruited two participants willing to put in 29 hours of practice over a 6 week period: Diane and John were their volunteers.
Before the training Diane and John’s normal reading and comprehension rates were measured, so it could be compared with post-training.
Then Spelke and colleagues set about their three-phase training regime.
Multitasking phase 1: Simultaneous reading and writing
The first step to multitasking was to get Diane and John reading and writing at the same time.
To do this they read short stories by authors like Katherine Mansfield at the same time as writing down a list of words being dictated to them.
Afterwards the experimenters checked their story comprehension and memory for the list of words.
This procedure was continued throughout all three phases of the study.
Naturally, when Diane and John first tried multitasking their reading speed, comprehension and memory all deteriorated.
But surprisingly, after six weeks, they could read just as fast and with the same level of comprehension whether or not they were also taking dictation at the same time.
They also often recognised more than two-thirds of the dictated words.
There is a problem with this study so far though: it’s possible that Diane and John weren’t really multitasking but had just leant to take dictation automatically and unconsciously.
Spelke and colleagues knew they had to push Diane and John harder.
Multitasking phase 2: Detecting patterns
Over the next few weeks Spelke and colleagues tested Diane and John’s higher-level awareness of the dictated lists.
Instead of dictating relatively unrelated words, patterns were now surreptitiously inserted into the lists, sometimes whole sentences.
Without forewarning Diane and John found these difficult to spot, but once told to search for the patterns they started noticing rhymes, categories of words and even sentences.
Although still missing a few, they did spot many of the patterns the experimenters hid in the sub-lists while they were multitasking.
Remember that this is all at the same time as reading an unrelated story at their normal speed and level of comprehension.
In this second phase the participants’ multitasking is even more impressive and it’s harder to argue that the dictation has become automatic and unconscious because Diane and John could spot many of the patterns.
Multitasking phase 3: Reading while categorising words
After the 16 weeks of the study it seemed that both Diane and John could categorise lists of words and write down the name of the category at the same time as reading, and understanding, a sophisticated and completely unrelated short story.
In the third and final phase Diane and John were asked to just write down the category to which the words belonged rather than the words themselves.
Again, their reading speed initially dropped when they were given this new task, but soon, with practice, it was back up to its original level.
Not only that but their reading speed and comprehension of the short story was unaffected compared with their pre-training tests.
Quite an impressive feat of attention.
Not everyone accepts that what Diane and John were doing was really multitasking.
Here are some of the objections:
- One of the tasks became automatic and therefore unconscious.
- Similarly, people have complained the tasks weren’t hard enough: reading and writing are already highly practised skills.
- Diane and John were learning to switch their attention from one task to the other very quickly, not focus on both at the same time.
- Two people is a very small sample size!
An impressive performance
These are all good points, but ultimately there’s still an impressive human performance here that requires explanation.
Whether or not Diane and John were really multitasking, the research certainly implies that we can train our attention to carry out two sophisticated tasks which require conscious deliberation at the same time.
This is more than just simultaneously talking and driving, or patting the head while rubbing the stomach: both reading and writing involve relatively deep processing of similar types of linguistic information.
Spelke and colleagues were clearly very impressed with Diane and John’s new abilities and they suggest there may be no limits to training human attention, perhaps even no limits to our general cognitive capacity.
All we need is some creativity along with plenty of time and practice.
Truly efficient multitasking may be within people’s grasp — with a lot of practice.
Even the best of us get distracted, so find out how to focus better and increase attention on whatever you choose.
Learning how to focus is vital in a world of constant distractions.
To achieve anything is life, you must be able to focus.
Unfortunately, people who are highly creative are also very easily distracted.
One of the most famous examples was the French writer Marcel Proust, who lined the bedroom where he wrote with cork and used ear-stoppers to help him concentrate.
So, if you find it hard to learn how to focus you are in good company, don’t worry.
Try these science-backed steps for a laser-like mental focus:
1. Choose only one thing to do
Our conscious attention is not really designed for doing more than one thing at a time.
First and foremost, then: choose just one thing to do.
This is easy to say, harder to follow through on.
Often there is a larger task which is chunked down into smaller tasks.
When one task is tricky or you get stuck, it’s easy for attention to slide off to something else.
Keep floating from one half-finished task to another, though, and nothing ever gets finished.
Pick one task or sub-task and stick to it until it’s either done or you’ve decided it really can’t be done now.
2. Concentrate on your best time of day
People are best at how to focus at different times of the day.
For a lot of people it’s the morning, for others it’s the afternoon or evening.
Whenever you feel most focused — or are least likely to be distracted — use that time for tasks that require the focus.
3. Short breathing exercise
Breathing exercises can you teach you how to focus.
Before you start work, do a little breathing exercise.
This is enough to refocus the minds of highly distracted people, research finds.
Heavy media multitaskers benefited most from simply counting their breaths.
Simply count groups of nine breaths: nine inhales and nine exhales.
A few minutes of this will do.
4. How to focus: mindfulness
Everyone gets distracted while they are trying to focus.
It’s normal and it’s better to see it as inevitable when you get distracted.
While working away at your task, try to bring the mind gently back to what you are doing.
Don’t chide yourself or get down when the focus slips.
Just note the distraction and nudge the mind back to where it is supposed to be.
5. Brief diversion
Attention gets tired over time — it happens to everyone.
After 10 minutes, 20 minutes, an hour or whatever, the mind starts to fatigue.
It is much better to take a short break when this happens rather than just ploughing on.
Studies show that when people take a short break they return with renewed vigour.
It only needs to be 5 minutes, or whatever works for you.
6. Take a walk, appreciate nature & doodling
Walks work wonderfully as a break from trying to focus.
Often, though, a walk is out of the question.
If so, why not try doodling on a piece of paper.
Doodling helps the mind relax because it is a ‘pointless’ task.
At the very least, try the short breathing exercise again (number 3).
Can’t manage that?
Even just looking at a picture of nature can help your attention.
Try resetting your desktop background.
After a break, it’s time to refocus.
If you are finding this difficult, then use the mindfulness strategy again.
Gently nudge your mind towards what it is supposed to be doing.
Remember to be nice to yourself!
8. How to focus: self-check
It’s easy to get distracted without really noticing that you’re distracted…
However, learning to periodically self-check can improve attention and help people focus better on tasks, research finds.
The study’s authors write that attentional lapses occur because:
“…humans do not adequately monitor how well they are attending from moment to moment.
Lapses emerge gradually and may be detected too late, after the chain of events that produces behavioral errors has been initiated.”
9. Adjust the task if you lose focus
Still losing focus?
Try adjusting the task.
Tasks that are either too easy or too hard cause us to mentally check out.
Can you set yourself a time-limit for easy tasks to make them harder?
Can you chunk down a difficult task to make it easier?
Adjust them so the challenge is in the sweet-spot: not too easy, not too hard.
Tasks that fit our skills but push us a bit are easier to enjoy: and so it’s easier to focus.
10. How to focus: listen to your body and mind
If the body or the mind start to ache, give it a break.
There’s a limit to how much we can get done.
When the head starts to hurt, the body to complain, then that’s the sign that it’s time to stop.
There’s no point pushing on and doing bad work.
Give it a rest until later, or until tomorrow.
Dodgy work is a waste of time — go and do something fun instead!
It may sound old-fashioned, but it works.
Are smartphones, computers and artificial intelligence making us stupid?
Learning an instrument enhances critical areas of the brain.
Musical training provides lasting improvements to attention and focus, research finds.
Musicians have greater control over their attention and are less distracted.
The more musical training a person has, the better they can control their attention.
Musicians also develop better memories, previous studies have shown.
Brain imaging research has even shown critical areas of the brain to be different in musicians.
Changes in the dorsolateral frontal regions (the top front of your head), in particular, are linked to better memory, error detection and goal-oriented behaviour in musicians.
Dr Paulo Barraza, the study’s lead author, said:
“Our study investigated the effects of systematic musical training on the main components of the attentional system.
Our findings demonstrate greater inhibitory attentional control abilities in musicians than non-musicians.
Professional musicians are able to more quickly and accurately respond to and focus on what is important to perform a task, and more effectively filter out incongruent and irrelevant stimuli than non-musicians.
In addition, the advantages are enhanced with increased years of training.”
The conclusions come from a study of 18 professional pianists with an average of 12 years of practice, who were compared with non-musicians.
All were given tests of their attentional systems.
The results showed that musicians were better at ignoring distractions while doing a complex task.
Dr David Medina, the study’s first author, said:
“Our findings of the relationship between musical training and improvement of attentional skills could be useful in clinical or educational fields, for instance, in strengthening the ability of ADHD individuals to manage distractions or the development of school programs encouraging the development of cognitive abilities through the deliberate practice of music.”
The study was published in the journal Heliyon (Medina & Barraza, 2019).
What multitasking does to your brain and the emotions.
Multitasking mostly makes people feel sad and fearful, new research finds.
Juggling emails, reports and other activities creates a tense working environment.
In contrast, people who have a relatively uninterrupted period to work find it easier to maintain a neutral emotional state.
The study suggests that allowing emails to continually interrupt is linked to negative emotions, even anger.
A previous study has shown that changing from one activity to another interferes with brain activity and may reduce productivity by up to 40%,
Dr Ioannis Pavlidis, study co-author, said:
“Not only do people experience stress with multitasking, but their faces may also express unpleasant emotions and that can have negative consequences for the entire office culture.”
The study analysed the facial expressions of 26 knowledge workers as they tried to write an essay.
Half received interrupting emails they had to respond to during the task.
The other half received all the emails in one batch so they were not interrupted while writing the essay.
The results showed that those who were continually interrupted displayed facial expression of sadness and fear.
Those who remained mostly uninterrupted maintained a neutral expression throughout.
Dr Pavlidis said:
“Individuals who engaged in multitasking appeared significantly sadder than those who did not.
Interestingly, sadness tended to mix with a touch of fear in the multitasking cohort.
Multitasking imposes an onerous mental load and is associated with elevated stress, which appears to trigger the displayed sadness.
The simultaneous onset of fear is intriguing and is likely rooted to subconscious anticipation of the next disruption.”
In the office, where a room full of people are all suffering (and causing) the same interruptions, the sadness and fear can spread like wildfire.
Dr Pavlidis said:
“Emotional contagion can spread in a group or workplace through the influence of conscious or unconscious processes involving emotional states or physiological responses.”
Many people are working from home during the pandemic, noted Dr Pavlidis:
“Currently, an intriguing question is what the emotional effect of multitasking at home would be, where knowledge workers moved their operation during the COVID 19 pandemic.”
The study was published in the Proceedings of the 2020 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (Blank et al., 2020).
How the pandemic could be affecting your diet and attention.