ARTICLE #15: Paying Attention

The Sherwood Report Using Science to See a Forest in the Trees

In Your Sight....

• If someone's distressed, remove as many distractions as

possible. Visual or otherwise.

• Stress-related narrowing of attention may hit teams especially

hard: you're supposed to make sure that teammates haven't missed

anything, but you aren't even perceiving your own missed cues, let

alone acting on them.

• Mental fatigue weakens our ability to maintain top-down/

goal-driven attention. Instead, we become more susceptible to

external stimuli.

• When learning, the more an instructor says, "Pay attention to

this," the narrower the student's focus. But increased vigilance for

one particular thing reduces the student's ability to see other

relevant things in the environment.

Are You Paying Attention?

"[T]he most critical factor for high-level performance is

attention to the right things at the right time," according to

Janelle and Hatfield, Military Psychology (2008). And it's not just

lasering in on one thing – it's also screening out distractors, too.

"Get out of your head": The story of training is you do something

until it's automatic: bad things happen if you "think too much." But

automaticity's value isn't about mindlessness; it's that the brain has

become more efficient at that hyper-familiar task. And since that

takes less effort (measured by lower alpha in EEGs), the brain is able

to pay more attention to what really matters – including crucial

changes in the environment – allowing you to be fluid, flexible, and

dynamic in the moment.

Attention is the difference between "near elite Olympians" and

"elite Olympians." In studies of Olympic pistol shooters and

biathletes, in the milliseconds before firing, the researchers describe

the "near elite" as switching their gaze between their guns and a

target. But the "elite" have a quiet eye: they only look at the target,

and, if need be, move guns into view.

All his life has he looked away.... Never his mind on where he

was: Apparently we're all like young Skywalker. Harvard scientists did an iPhone study and found we're thinking about something other than

what we're doing, almost 50% of the time, and along with that, increased inattention predicts a rise in unhappiness. Fascinatingly, the

researchers concluded it's not that we distract ourselves when we're unhappy because of what we're doing. It's that we're unhappy because

we're not thinking about what we're doing.

Quick Shots:

Attention is top-down – volitional, cognitive and driven by

the prefrontal cortex – or bottom-up – involuntary / driven by

external stimuli that activate the amygdala and other areas of the

"reptilian brain."

Under stress, our visual field of attention narrows. Then,

worried we're missing something, we scan around more, trying see

what's on the periphery. But this backfires, as we become more

distracted by irrelevant or threatening things in the environment.

For example,

In a 2015 University of Exeter study of commercial pilots,

during a simulation licensing exam, the pilots were told in

advance the simulation was of an engine failure. However, if pilots

were anxious about the exam, they spent more time looking at the

gauges saying the engine was dead, when they should have been

looking out the cockpit window.

Meanwhile, in a 2012 Virginia Tech experiment designed to

induce panic (participants were asked to breathe in a mixture of

35% CO2/65% O2), those with better attentional control were

less distressed and fearful while experiencing CO2's effects.

On Target: Smack That Gugl?

In a study published earlier this month, Duke University and US

Army researchers concluded poor performance in first-person

shooter video games (e.g. shooting victims, not bad guys) was due to

cognitive impulsivity: a player couldn't stop himself from a planned

motor response, even after he'd realized the mistake. At a certain

point, there was a disconnect between his attention and action. Or

in the researchers' words, the problem was "an itchy brain," not "an

itchy trigger finger." (Think the batter who can't stop from

swinging, even though he knows a pitch is high.)

Following a baseline assessment on a shooting video game, study

participants were asked to play "Smack That Gugl!" – an iPad game

where you hit some "Gugls" and refrain from hitting others – and

another computer game for an hour for 4 days. Then they did a

retest. Those who'd played the iPad game made fewer mistakes in

the shooting game: they better controlled their impulsivity.

About me: I've co-authored two New York Times bestsellers, Top Dog:

The Science of Winning and Losing and NurtureShock, and I've written

for the New York Times, Newsweek, Time, New York, ESPN and more.