ATD Blog

Why People (Don’t) Pay Attention

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Whether it’s your spouse, your children, your boss, or your employees, at one time or another you’ve probably been frustrated because someone wasn’t “paying attention” to you. We can take in thousands of bits of sensory data in seconds, cross-reference that data against the information stored in 140 billion brain cells in a micro-second, and retrieve memories of everything from a recipe, to our first date, to our current project plan from the same group of stimuli. And that’s just what we are thinking about on the conscious level. Our brains simultaneously are signaling us to have emotional responses, which we may or may not be able to understand or even consciously recognize. At the unconscious level, our brains are making sure our bodies remember to do important, automatic things, like breathe and make our hearts beat.

Is it any wonder that sometimes our attention seems to wander?

The talent management professional is called upon to make presentations, write communication materials, or coach other people. Our effectiveness depends in part on our ability to draw and keep our audiences’ attention. To be more effective “attention-grabbers,” it helps to understand how attention works.

Through the technology of brain imaging, neuroscientists have discovered how our brain works to select what we actually see, by using some information and focusing on other data streaming into our brains through our vast sensory input. Here’s how it works:

Our brain is built for survival. So it always is on the alert for potential danger and potential food. But the brain can’t take it all in at once, so it has learned to be selective, bringing into focus only those stimuli that seem important for our survival. That’s one reason why a sudden, loud sound will make us jump, and why we pay more attention to hamburger commercials when we’re hungry.

Recent studies have shown that once the prefrontal cortex starts to focus on an object, it sends signals to the visual cortex, commanding the eyes to focus on that object. Soon, both parts of the brain are exchanging information. What is even more amazing is how they begin to oscillate in time with each other, showing the give-and-take of information as it is actually flowing between the two brain regions. We can also produce this effect by telling someone to focus on a particular object. Most brains will readily obey, apparently taking such instruction as a potential cue for survival.

Once a brain becomes focused on an object in this manner, all kinds of interesting things happen. Here’s a few of them:


Change blindness. Studies show that once people are told to pay attention to a specific part of a scene or picture, they will fail to notice when even significant changes occur outside of the area of focus. One of the most interesting examples of this can be found on YouTube.

(Did you see the invisible gorilla the first time? I didn’t.)

Short-term memory limitations. The brain holds new information in a special area called “short-term” or “working” memory. This is sort of like a temporary file in your brain. If the information is deemed valuable for survival, it is coded and cross-referenced with as much existing information as possible, so that we can retrieve it later. If it doesn’t pass the “important to survival” test, it usually is discarded to make room for more incoming information. While our brains have an almost unlimited capacity to store information, this working memory is quite limited. Most studies say we can hold approximately:

  • 1-5 images (depending on their complexity)
  • 5-9 digits
  • 5-7 letters
  • 4-6 words

If you want people to pay attention to you, here are a few tips:

  • Tell them in advance what’s important regarding what you are about to say.
  • Keep the information coming in short chunks, to give the short-term memory time to process.
  • Keep saying why this information is important, so that their brains will file the information away and make room for your next chunk of data.
  • Link what you are saying to things they already know, to help the brain with the cross-referencing process.
  • Include devices that the brain recognizes as potential changes in our survivability, such as:
    • movement
    • similarities
    • contrast
    • expected rewards
    • strong emotions

So the next time “they” aren’t paying attention, ask yourself what you’re missing.

Additional Reading:

Neuroscientists Identify How the Brain Works to Select What We (Want To) See. Science Daily, February 21, 2012.

Change Blindness. Indiana University.

Blind to Change, Even as it Stares Us in the Face. New York Times.

For more on neuroscience applications for human capital, check out the full blog series here.

About the Author

Margie Meacham, “The Brain Lady,” is a scholar-practitioner in the field of education and learning and president of LearningToGo. She specializes in practical applications for neuroscience to enhance learning and performance. Meacham’s clients include businesses, schools, and universities. She writes a popular blog for the Association of Talent Development and has published two books, Brain Matters: How to Help Anyone Learn Anything Using Neuroscience and The Genius Button: Using Neuroscience to Bring Out Your Inner Genius.

She first became interested in the brain when she went with undiagnosed dyslexia as a child. Although she struggled in the early grades, she eventually taught herself how to overcome the challenge of a slight learning disability and became her high school valedictorian, graduated magna cum laude from Centenary University, and earned her master’s degree in education from Capella University with a 4.0.

Meacham started her professional career in high-tech sales, and when she was promoted to director of training, she discovered her passion for teaching and helping people learn. She became one of the first corporate trainers to use video conferencing and e-learning and started her own consulting company from there. Today she consults for many organizations, helping them design learning experiences that will form new neural connections and marry neuroscience theory with practice.

“I believe we are on the verge of so many wonderful discoveries about how we learn. Understanding what happens in the brain is making us better leaders, teachers, parents, and employees. We have no limits to what we can accomplish with our wonderful brains— the best survival machines ever built.”
—Margie Meacham

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