Becoming mindful of our attention

“What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.” ― Herbert Simon

Origin story: Unintended consequence of the TV remote

In 1955, Zenith released the “Flashmatic” device allowing people to take control of their attention away with features to mute, or skip channels. Eugene Polley, an engineer at Zenith designed this game-changing wireless remote to free people from the constant barrage of advertisements. Consequently this product aided a compensatory behaviour, facilitating mindless channel surfing or the digital equivalent of doom scrolling on social media. 

The unintended consequence of a device designed to liberate people’s attention ended up with the “compensatory behaviour” of enslaving television viewers in a completely different way. While designing products for a specific behaviour change outcome, one can refer to the INCASE framework to help surface some of these potential unanticipated consequences.

Takeaway#1 — A behaviourally informed product draws attention to watch out for unintended consequences to mitigate undesirable spillover effects.

Tuning in and out: The cocktail party effect

Imagine you are at a party, listening to live music and tuning out of the mundane conversations around you. If someone mentions your name, you may find yourself automatically listening again, almost like you were paying attention all along. Cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists refer to this as the “cocktail party effect”. This feature of the brain enables us to pay attention to a specific cue despite being exposed to a multitude of sounds like music, clinking of glasses and many conversations around us simultaneously. 

boomunderground animation vintage drinking drinks GIF

Similar to how we expand our visual gaze into a panoramic view or contract into focussing on a specific object, we can do the same with our auditory window. The brain takes up plenty of energy at rest and when we seek to pay attention to something specific, it literally consumes even more caloric energy. If we want to listen to someone in a highly stimulating environment, this takes energy and focus. Nevertheless, if we are really interested in this person, or what they are saying, we will be more motivated to tune in.

Takeaway#2 — We automatically tune out irrelevant stimuli so that we can dedicate our cognitive bandwidth towards information that draws our attention.

Habituation: The neuroscience of mindful attention

While habits support the learning of new behaviours, it may come as a double-edged sword. We pay little attention to a behaviour after it becomes an automatic routine in order to conserve mental bandwidth. Neuroscience imagery shows that the brain stem’s RAS (reticular activating system) has little activity during a repeated behaviour. Often this habituation makes life dull, leads to poor automatic choices and can even make interactions with people we care about boring. 

In the reverse, when we encounter something new and novel, cortical circuits activate the RAS which engages other core brain circuitry. This insight challenges the conventional notion that attention is an automatic and unconscious process (behavioural science refers to this as "System 1") which is purely stimuli-driven. With practices of mindfulness, noticing little details of our experiences like sights, sounds, tastes and other sensations that are often routine, the familiar can become fresh and intriguing. This attention training can enrich our lives by focussing on a deeply textured present moment and help us make deliberate choices aligned with our values.

Takeaway#3 — Making the old new again can help us break deeply entrenched habits and align present actions with our long terms intentions.

Multi-tasking: The hidden tax for context switching

While many people pride themselves in their ability to multitask, our minds do not multitask, rather it switches rapidly from one task to others. Attention does not flow in parallel as multitasking implies. Instead, it demands rapid switching and following every switch our attention is diminished. Research highlights that this switching cost can take as much as 40% of a person’s productive time.

“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” — Simone Weil (French philosopher)

Being present to another person can be seen as a basic form of compassion and enhances our empathy by tuning into how this person is feeling in the present moment. As the brain constantly craves novelty, this takes a toll on our relationships, productivity and depletes energy which reduces our overall attention capacity. Heavy multitaskers are more prone to getting distracted and when they try to focus on a task at hand, their minds wander and even their ability to multitask suffers. The inability to filter out the noise from the signal, creates a confusion of what’s important which impacts the rest of our lives.

Takeaway#4 — When we task switch for the sake of novelty, we pay the price in diminished attention that we can dedicate for our work and people around us.

Meta awareness: Paying attention to our attention

An intensive focus on the comings and goings of the mind cultivates stability which boils down to pure meta awareness. In this state, one recognises the shift of awareness itself as it flows from one thing to another. As you become more aware of being aware, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) becomes more active. Meditation can increase the activity of this DLPFC, as demonstrated by experiments giving participants rapid tasks, where they are prone to making errors. Participants assigned to a mindfulness practice were able to recognise whether they were making errors under this pressure. 

Excuse Me Focus GIF by Cameo

Noticing that our mind often wanders, introduces a crucial choice point when we observe ourselves drifting away from what we planned to do. We can then bring our focus back to our intentions and move towards completing what we wish to achieve. This mental skill underpins what makes us effective in the world, from learning new skills to generating creative insights and completing big projects.

Takeaway#5 — We can build our capacity for attention with practices that prompts us to slow down and reflect on where we wish to navigate our wandering minds.


The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads — Book by Tim Wu

Our Mental Space, Under Attack — Hidden Brain podcast episode

A behavioural approach to anticipating unintended consequences — IN CASE framework

The Science of Hearing, Balance & Accelerated Learning — Huberman Lab podcast

How Context Switching Sabotages Your Productivity — Blog by Elaine Meyer

Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body — Book by Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson

Keep learning insights from behavioural science

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
Learn something new every month. We deliver behavioural insights straight to your inbox.