Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Brain Rule #4: We don't pay attention to boring things.

The summaries continue.

I have spent a good deal of my life struggling to find ways to pay attention, even as I read this chapter.  It was an interesting chapter and I am deeply interested in the subject. But I have had to develop mechanisms throughout my life to help me get through reading and other tasks.  If I am ever a speaker or writer who holds your attention, it is because I will get bored with myself as quickly as any of you will. Boring is the death knell of a sermon, a classroom--a university that is boring is a dead man walking.

"Better attention always equals better learning" (74).  Accordingly, if we are interested in people learning something, we had better take holding attention into account.  Medina believes that research puts the normal attention span at 10 minutes. He treats this time limit as somewhat universal, but there are other voices that suggest that the number may have some cultural dimensions.  For example, I have heard more recently that the number is down to 7 minutes among younger people in the United States.

What sorts of things impact our attention?  Medina's first list starts with memory.  "We use previous experience to predict where we should pay attention" (75).  Culture can play a major role in that regard. For example, someone who lives in the jungle of New Guinea pays attention to things a Westerner would hardly notice, and vice versa.

Other interests or sources of arousal are more universal.  The unusual or unpredictable usually grabs our attention.  Medina also talks about what little we know about how awareness takes place.  The brain has two haves.  The left hemisphere has a rather limited "spotlight" on the world and is only capable of paying attention to things on the right side of our visual field (77).  The right one, on the other hand, has a more "global spotlight."

Medina's next section deals with the process of grabbing our attention.  He draws on the work of Michael Posner to suggest a "Trinity Model," a three stage process of grabbing attention.  Stage one involves what Posner calls the "Alerting or Arousal Network" (79).  Medina intentionally began the chapter with the story of a man who broke into his house with a gun in the middle of the night. That's the kind of story that triggers the brain's "surveillance and alert" instincts. It works with our "Intrinsic Alertness."

Next our brain shifts to "Phasic Alertness" (79).  "We orient ourselves to the attending stimulus." We gain more information in our "Orienting Network." This network then leads to our "Executive Network" and "oh my gosh what should I do now" behaviors.

So what gets our attention?  First, emotions get our attention (79-82). "Emotionally arousing events tend to be better remembered than neutral events" (79). Medina calls one an ECS, an "emotionally competent stimulus."  When our brain detects an ECS, the amygdala in the brain releases dopamine, which is like a Post-It note that says, "Remember this" (81).

These emotionally charged events are of two sorts, ones that no two individuals experience in the same way and ones that everyone experiences identically.  The individual ones are often tied to specific memories from our past.  Clanging pots arouse different emotions for Medina than for his wife because his mother used to clang pots washing the dishes when she was angry.

Meanwhile, we have universally experienced stimuli from our evolution, Medina would say.  We feel in predictable ways when a stimulus leads us to ask questions like "Will it eat me?" or "Will it mate with me?" "Have I seen it before?"

A second way to help us pay attention is to give the big picture before getting to the details (82-84).  "Arousal focuses attention on the 'gist' of an experience at the expense of peripheral details" (83).  (As a side note, one wonders if personality comes into play here, since some personalities are more detailed oriented)  "Memory is enhanced by creating associations between concepts" (84).

A third warning Medina gives is that the brain cannot truly multitask (84-88). If you get a text message while working on a paper, you have to shift away from one activity and activate a new part of your brain to look at the next activity.  To return to the paper, you have to shift again and activity the paper writing parts of your brain again.  "Studies show that a person who is interrupted takes 50 percent longer to accomplish a task.  Not only that, he or she makes up to 50 percent more errors" (87).  Some people can switch tasks more quickly than others but no one can truly multitask in terms of paying attention (we can do some things subconsciously like walking while talking to someone).

Finally, the brain needs a break.  "Most teachers overstuff their students" (88).  "Relating too much information, with not enough time devoted to connecting the dots" does not facilitate good learning.  He comes to a conclusion with which many students will identify: "expertise doesn't guarantee good teaching" (89).

He ends the chapter with a classroom session designed around these insights.  (On a side note, he falls short because he is still primarily speaking in terms of lecture rather than diversified activities)  He divides a 50 minute class into 10 minute segments.  Each 10 minute segment is divided into 1 minute of overview, and 9 minutes of more details.

At the end of each ten minute segment, he "baits the hook" by triggering an emotion.  He usually starts with a hook at the beginning of the lecture.  Then after two or three hooks, about halfway through the lecture, he has found he doesn't need to hook more.

His parting word: "Do one thing at a time" (93). It reminds one of a time management tip to divide your day into small 20-30 minute tasks. Shut off email and other distractions until you finish it. Take a short break. Then move on to the next task.

1 comment:

Samuel Maynes said...

If you are interested in some new ideas on religious pluralism, the Trinity, and panentheism, please check out my website at www.religiouspluralism.ca. It previews my book, which has not been published yet and is still a “work-in-progress.” Your constructive criticism would be very much appreciated.

My thesis is that an abstract version of the Trinity could be Christianity’s answer to the world need for a framework of pluralistic theology.

In a constructive worldview: east, west, and far-east religions present a threefold understanding of One God manifest primarily in Muslim and Hebrew intuition of the Deity Absolute, Christian and Krishnan Hindu conception of the Universe Absolute Supreme Being; and Shaivite Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist apprehension of the Destroyer (meaning also Consummator), Unconditioned Absolute, or Spirit of All That Is and is not. Together with their variations and combinations in other major religions, these religious ideas reflect and express our collective understanding of God, in an expanded concept of the Holy Trinity.

The Trinity Absolute is portrayed in the logic of world religions, as follows:

1. Muslims and Jews may be said to worship only the first person of the Trinity, i.e. the existential Deity Absolute Creator, known as Allah or Yhwh, Abba or Father (as Jesus called him), Brahma, and other names; represented by Gabriel (Executive Archangel), Muhammad and Moses (mighty messenger prophets), and others.

2. Christians and Krishnan Hindus may be said to worship the first person through a second person, i.e. the experiential Universe or "Universal” Absolute Supreme Being (Allsoul or Supersoul), called Son/Christ or Vishnu/Krishna; represented by Michael (Supreme Archangel), Jesus (teacher and savior of souls), and others. The Allsoul is that gestalt of personal human consciousness, which we expect will be the "body of Christ" (Mahdi, Messiah, Kalki or Maitreya) in the second coming – personified in history by Muhammad, Jesus Christ, Buddha (9th incarnation of Vishnu), and others.

3. Shaivite Hindus, Buddhists, and Confucian-Taoists seem to venerate the synthesis of the first and second persons in a third person or appearance, ie. the Destiny Consummator of ultimate reality – unqualified Nirvana consciousness – associative Tao of All That Is – the absonite* Unconditioned Absolute Spirit “Synthesis of Source and Synthesis,”** who/which is logically expected to be Allah/Abba/Brahma glorified in and by union with the Supreme Being – represented in religions by Gabriel, Michael, and other Archangels, Mahadevas, Spiritpersons, etc., who may be included within the mysterious Holy Ghost.

Other strains of religion seem to be psychological variations on the third person, or possibly combinations and permutations of the members of the Trinity – all just different personality perspectives on the Same God. Taken together, the world’s major religions give us at least two insights into the first person of this thrice-personal One God, two perceptions of the second person, and at least three glimpses of the third.

* The ever-mysterious Holy Ghost or Unconditioned Spirit is neither absolutely infinite, nor absolutely finite, but absonite; meaning neither existential nor experiential, but their ultimate consummation; neither fully ideal nor totally real, but a middle path and grand synthesis of the superconscious and the conscious, in consciousness of the unconscious.

** This conception is so strong because somewhat as the Absonite Spirit is a synthesis of the spirit of the Absolute and the spirit of the Supreme, so it would seem that the evolving Supreme Being may himself also be a synthesis or “gestalt” of humanity with itself, in an Almighty Universe Allperson or Supersoul. Thus ultimately, the Absonite is their Unconditioned Absolute Coordinate Identity – the Spirit Synthesis of Source and Synthesis – the metaphysical Destiny Consummator of All That Is.

For more details, please see: www.religiouspluralism.ca

Samuel Stuart Maynes