What is attention and how to use it to your advantage

Daan van der Wiele

Daan van der Wiele

Head of Marketing and Product

Nowadays, attention is one of the most crucial things to understand for businesses and organizations. The world is becoming more connected with unlimited access to people, products, and entertainment. There are so many alternatives to who you are and what you do. Luckily, attention can be understood, by learning about the underlying processes. With this, we can give ourselves a better chance of success.

 

This blog will provide a sneak peek into how our attention works. We will do this with the help of Alessandra Nostro, a senior neuroscientist at Alpha.One. For the full interview with her, we highly recommend you check the first episode of The Attention Podcast: An Introduction to Attention with Neuroscientist Alessandra Nostro. You can also find our podcast on your favorite platforms, such as Spotify and Apple podcasts.

 

So what is attention? From a scientific perspective, it can be defined as: ‘the brain’s ability to focus on specific stimuli while ignoring other distracting stimuli. Explaining it in a more simplified manner can be done by focusing on the absence of attention. Visually, not everything that is available to your eyes you observe. The brain is always steering attention to certain things of interest within your retina, which means that it ignores other things.


Sound also requires your attention. Imagine you are in a busy environment with lots of conversations happening all around you, a cocktail party perhaps. We have all been in a situation where we are more interested in the juicy conversation next to us rather than talking politics with the group we are with at the moment.

So at some point, we lose interest in the boring political conversation and zone out to listen in on another conversation just next to us. You might have picked up a few words or sentences when engaged in the previous dialogue, but you are probably not fully aware of what transpired in this conversation. It is a perfect example of how the brain steers attention. Your surroundings have not changed, yet your perception of the situation has. 



We at expoze.io know that the brain constantly guides attention to points of interest within our retina. A great visualization of this principle is our eye-tracking heatmap.

 

With this in mind, we can divide our attention into two types. First, bottom-up attention is determined by external stimuli. Someone breaks a glass at our cocktail party, for example. This external stimulus will catch your attention and create a response from you.


The second type is top-down attention. It is generated from within a person and defined as a cognitive effort. For example, you want to read a restaurant's menu to know which dishes are available. This type of attention is steered directly by yourself and has a higher potential.


Interindividual variability also plays a role in the level of attention we as humans give to the things around us. Every person has different interests or triggers that could engage their attention. During the cocktail party, we focused on a different conversation because the previous one was not engaging enough. It demonstrates that attention is a limited resource. If we lose interest, our attention fades away. So with that in mind, can we use attention to our advantage to communicate or engage with the people around us?




 

Leveraging Attention

Attention is a limited resource, so we need to be considerate. Direct communication has a higher chance of succeeding than beating around the bush.


So ensure you communicate your most important messages without distractions to receive maximum attention. Multiple pieces of information or tasks will force the brain to multitask by dividing its attention. It decreases for each task as a result. An eye-tracking heatmap from expoze.io can show precisely how the attention will divide.

Also, be aware of the two levels of attention: top down & bottom up. Top-down attention is powerful. Information retained from top-down attention is guaranteed to be stored in the brain for future use. If a person tries to focus attention on something, possibly by studying a book, the information will retain. Meanwhile, information received through bottom-up attention (reacting) will most likely not endure in the brain. A day after the cocktail party, you did not remember someone breaking that glass, but you did recall that amusing story from the group behind you. 


Finally, we need to consider the different senses of people: vision & sound, for example. Two tasks within the same channel will lead to a split of attention, but two tasks on contrasting channels can be very manageable. Driving a car while texting on your phone is a recipe for disaster, one of them is bound to go wrong. But driving a car while listening to a podcast is pleasant. Additionally, combining these two channels for one specific task is very effective. When studying a book, the brain becomes more engaged when you read aloud.



We have even more viable features of attention for you, but you will have to listen to the full podcast episode to know what they are.

 

So this was a brief introduction to attention. For a deeper dive into the world of attention, we recommend you check the other episodes of the podcast here. Episode six is one of our favorites as it covers the art of making good online video advertisements with Dr. Ingrid Nieuwenhuis.

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