Your brain’s not working!

This entry is part 6 of 9 in the series The Brain Rules.

Well, it’s not completely true that your brain’s not working. The post’s title may have gotten it working on something new, which is one of the points in chapter 4 of John Medina’s Brain Rules: We don’t pay attention to boring things.

Paging Mr. Godot... Mr. GodotOur brains constantly respond to electricity. We convert input from the outside world into electrical charges, continuously cycling through:

  • Detecting the inputs,
  • Attending to some of them, and
  • Deciding whether and how to respond.

So, what works if we want people to attend to something? Cathy Moore has one solid answer: appeal to emotions. In some sense, our brains are managing by exception. We pay attention to things that are striking because they stand out from typical patterns.

As you’re driving your car, for example, you’re constantly monitoring for what’s out of the ordinary — even if you do most of that almost unconsciously. No unusual movement in the mirrors? No funny sound from the road or the engine? No vehicles moving much slower or much faster than the others?

Attention must be paid!Emotions can trigger dopamine in the brain, attaching what Medina calls a chemical Post-it note to the input. “Same old, same old” doesn’t make for emotional attraction.

In the effort to gain and hold attention, Medina stresses meaning before details. Our ancestors on the grasslands of Africa learned in a strict Darwinian way not to get bogged down too early in irrelevant detail.

This doesn’t mean detail is unimportant. It does mean that if you are trying to hold someone’s attention, it makes sense from the get-go to deliver relevant, big-picture meaning that matters to that person.

Medina cites research to suggest that most of the time you can expect to hold someone’s attention for a maximum of 10 minutes. (Did the folks at YouTube know this? Maybe so.) That holds some serious implications for people making presentations, designing learning, or writing blog posts.

In short, Medina suggests chucking your material into 10 minute segments and triggering a relevant emotion at the start of each chunk. I’m stressing relevant here because everyone’s seen pointless animation and heard extraneous or even distracting sound as part of an unsuccessful attempt to seize attention and never let it go.

There’s a lot of good material in this chapter — in particular, Medina’s contention that the brain can’t multitask. That’s more than I could fit into this 10 minute chunk, so I’ll make it a post on its own.

Photo of Capitol South Metro station by cursedthing / Laura A.
Photo of Post-It man by LuluP / Lucille Pine.

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3 thoughts on “Your brain’s not working!

  1. I misread your comment and thought you were saying he’d bought a book about the Kindle, which sounded pretty funny.

    I’d be interested in what he thinks (or what you do). Brain Rules isn’t scholarly, and some of Medina’s notions for things people might do are a bit impractical, but overall it’s a good framework.

    As I keep saying, for people interested in this sort of thing, Levitin’s This is Your Brain on Music and Begley’s Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain are readable, factual, engaging, and illuminating.

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