Attention with Stefan Van der Stigchel

Stefan Van der Stigchel is Professor of Cognitive Psychology at Utrecht University and the author of How Attention Works (MIT Press).

On attention and curiosity

As a researcher I study the visual domain, what we pick up from the world around us. I think the brain is inherently curious, because it has to pick up information around us. It has to sample the environment. And we sample by a process called attention. We focus our attention on the things that we want to explore, the things that we want to know more about, the things that are relevant to us. The way attention works is that we can only sample a part of the external world at one time, and this forces on us a decision about where to focus. We can all be in the same room, and because we all have different views about the world, we all focus our attention on different things.

If you’re curious about the world around you, you will focus your attention differently, given what you’re curious about. Meaning that the way we sample the world is determined by what we want to pick up from the world around us.

On using knowledge

If two people are looking at a painting and you study at where people look, just look at the eye movement patterns, you will see that we sample that painting differently.

Then if you’re quiet and after a period you talk to each other, you’ll immediately notice that both of have picked up on much different information and that will also influence how you interpret the painting. I’ve had lovely experiences with people who know a lot about art telling me and informing me about where to look on a specific painting. I would never have been able to pick up on that information if I had not had that knowledge. Without that knowledge I would not have picked up on that information, and I would have perceived the world differently.

On focus

From an evolutionary point of view, we have to pay attention to certain things. If something starts to move abruptly, we will all pay attention to that piece of information. We have to. It’s one aspect of our behaviour that has led us to survive, because someone might cross the road in front of our car, or enter the room, and it might actually constitute a threat. A lot of people complain about this, right? ‘I’m reading, but I’m being distracted all the time.’ But we don’t say, ‘I tried to go to work, but every time I crossed a busy road, I am distracted by all these moving cars!’ It’s the same evolutionary process at work. The brain doesn’t know whether the thing that’s flashing on the screen in your periphery is evolutionarily important, whether it’s actually a threat or it’s completely irrelevant. The brain doesn’t know it. The brain only has one modus. If something flashes, if something’s moving, we should automatically move our attention towards that information.

The good news is you can make this work for you rather than against you. You can instruct yourself to pick up on certain information by giving yourself a specific assignment to focus on. For example, if you enter a room you could instruct yourself to look at architecture of that room, your attention will be guided by the task in hand.

On your attentional window

An attentional window is the size of your spotlight. As a spotlight in the theatre, your attentional spotlight can also change in size. When you’re reading something, you have a small attentional spotlight. You’re focusing on the letters, on the individual words. However, when you’re in a new supermarket for the first time and you’re looking for your favourite pack of milk, you have a large spotlight. We’re constantly zooming in and zooming out, given the task that we have. There are some very interesting individual differences between people who are more able to look at a world with a smaller spotlight, and other people who tend to look at the world with a large spotlight.  You need both.

On concentration

What is the difference between attention and concentration? Attention is the filtering process, what are you pick up from the world around you right now? Concentration is sustained attention.

Concentration is like a muscle, you need to train it. Meditation is a very good concentration exercise, it’s like hyper-concentration. It is concentration boiled down to its essence. Focus on something and ignore all the external and internal distractions.

On bias

As everyone, I generally believe that I’m right! And so, what I try to do when I’m making a statement, like for instance about climate change, I really try to take one step back and think, ‘What’s the evidence? What’s my evidence? Where do I get this information from?’ I try to be conscious of my own bubble and see if I am perhaps incorrect.

One piece of advice

Remember that your perception of the world is limited, but that’s not a problem. It’s actually a solution to a huge problem, because we cannot deal with all the incoming information. But that means that our attention is something that’s very precious. Try to think of your attention as a resource that is very valuable and use it wisely.

 

The Curious Advantage is an exploration of the behaviour of curiosity and its central role in the digital age, taking the widest possible exploration of things curious—historical, contemporary, neuro-scientific, anthropological, behavioural and business.

Curiosity has profound implications for organisations, leaders and individuals inhabiting the digital reality.  The Curious Advantage provides pragmatic tools and case studies and makes the case for how curiosity is the greatest driver of value in the new digital age. Curiosity is at the heart of the skills required to successfully navigate our digital lives when all futures are uncertain.

The Curious Advantage introduces the 7C’s of Curiosity model—a useful tool for anyone wanting to lead a curious organisation or who wants to challenge themselves to be actively curious.

Get your print or digital copy of The Curious Advantage on Amazon.

Subscribe and listen to The Curious Advantage Podcast.

Suzie Collier on Nurturing Curiosity

Suzie Collier is a professor at the Royal Academy of Music in the Junior Department and the mother of Jacob Collier, the Grammy Award-winning musician, and two daughters, Sophie and Ella.

How do we nurture and enable curiosity?

Well, I love the word curiosity. I think it’s one that a lot of people are frightened of really, because curiosity means that you’re willing to move around within your mind and within the world. It’s quite hard to define it, but I would say it’s about delving deeper, it’s not seeing something just at face value. It’s a will to understand something rather than to just know it.

On curiosity and fear

If you allow curiosity to be at the head of what you’re doing, then you’re not going to be fearful because curiosity and fear just simply don’t go together. If you’re frightened to look and see what the deeper meaning is or to look at another way of actually seeing something, then you can’t be curious.

When going into a situation, if you are feeling fearful, you may not even want to go into that place at all, so you might just avoid it and say, ‘I just don’t want to do this today.’ And in a sense, that’s okay. I don’t think I am curious all the time but if I allow the innate energy to flow, I become much more curious.

Enabling curiosity in a child

Many people give advice about bringing up a child. They may say it’s all about routine, it’s about not listening to them scream, otherwise you’re going to indulge that child. But I don’t believe that it is indulgent to listen to that person, I think it’s indulgent for them to say what they want, and for you to just say okay, here it all is, without thinking. Perhaps in a lot of people’s minds, it’s a very fine line. I just don’t think so. I think you can really listen, but you can have very clear boundaries and you can definitely say how you feel and put that in there, it’s not just about listening one-sided. And that’s the whole thing about curiosity, isn’t it, that it’s not a one-sided thing.

And without wishing to ask too many questions of a child, you can actually enable them to be asking questions if you ask the first couple in a very open way. If I asked one of my children about how a note felt, for example, then they might have said, ‘Oh, I’m feeling that Db and it’s really warm and purple and I feel like it’s a cosy blanket!’ I always felt that my children could take me along a journey, so that they’d be teaching me something new about what we were listening to and why, and in that sense, we were all curious together.

Encouraging children to be unafraid

I think it’s to do with a lack of judgement. When you’ve got a class of people or an orchestra in front of you, judgment’s a funny thing. You can pick it up from body language with just a look and a nod of the head, and you’ve got to get rid of that completely, so there is space for someone to perhaps say that, ‘Listening to this feels like I’m up in a balloon, or I feel frightened and I don’t really know why.’ And if they can say that and it’s left in the air without judgement, then it can be explored and it can be understood.

Within a classroom setup, I really have to consider where students have been in their day. If necessary, I might take them outside for a second, not in order to judge them and tell them off, but in order to just say that I acknowledge that there is something wrong and that I wonder really whether they can just take a moment to just reflect on the day and to see what’s happened to make this occur.

In essence, I want to try and take away judgement. I also want to express that we are all equal as human beings in a classroom or in a room together. I’m no better than them because I’m older and bigger. But if we’re going to really work together, there needs to be some kind of mutual respect in there and I do always say that I can’t ask them to respect me, but I really would like to keep the communication channels open, so that if they have a difficulty with what I’m saying, that they can say something without the fear of being judged.

On motivation

My dear dad wrote a scale book, which is a very fine tome. And the way that he’s written it with the fingerings and how they work is quite alternative, there’s no other scale tome quite like it and I love it. Within his teaching, he encouraged scales to be practised in 100 different ways. Start from the top, start from the bottom, do it in this rhythm, do it in that rhythm, play it in different modes. In short, it’s so important to vary what you play to keep up motivation.

I normally teach older students rather than younger, but some of them still do have a parental input, and I tend to talk to parent and child about the process of becoming independent learners, actually for both of them. The ability to learn independently is a really wonderful gift to be able to give to somebody because if they can motivate themselves within their practise to take the next step, then that’s really great. Again, it’s about lack of judgement, it’s about thinking about what you want to do and making your own choices. You might say, in my practice, I know that I want to run this whole section through because it gives me so much satisfaction, even though it’s not accurate. And you might say, I really ought to do these finger exercises because when I do run through this section, I want to make sure that the rhythm is really working for me. So it might be that you say well, okay, I’m going to try and do the thing that I don’t really want to do first, in order to strengthen up my fingers and discipline them a little bit to enjoy playing through the section more!

The curious reset

But then you might find that you’re really bored and you don’t want to do anything, and at that moment, I really do advocate that to keep up motivation, you have to do exactly the opposite of what you’re telling yourself to do. You put down the instrument and you shake out a bit, you walk to another room, you drink some water, you use your voice instead of thinking about expressing on an instrument.

And suddenly, you will get the energy. And it might mean that 20 minutes later, having had a frolic around with all sorts of pieces and ideas and things, that that person says, do you know something? I don’t mind having a go at those scales now. This is the curious reset.

One tip

It’s about overcoming fear, being open, understanding rather than knowing, understanding the boundaries and safety and how you move forward with energy. Also the curious reset, this idea that if you are locked or bored or can’t figure it out or don’t know, try and come at it from multiple perspectives, multi-dimensionality.

One more tip. Maybe get rid of the word ‘try’ and use ‘allow’ instead. Hold curiosity gently in your arms rather than trying to grasp it.

The Curious Advantage is an exploration of the behaviour of curiosity and its central role in the digital age, taking the widest possible exploration of things curious—historical, contemporary, neuro-scientific, anthropological, behavioural and business.

Curiosity has profound implications for organisations, leaders and individuals inhabiting the digital reality.  The Curious Advantage provides pragmatic tools and case studies and makes the case for how curiosity is the greatest driver of value in the new digital age. Curiosity is at the heart of the skills required to successfully navigate our digital lives when all futures are uncertain.

The Curious Advantage introduces the 7C’s of Curiosity model—a useful tool for anyone wanting to lead a curious organisation or who wants to challenge themselves to be actively curious.

Get your print or digital copy of The Curious Advantage on Amazon.

Subscribe and listen to The Curious Advantage Podcast.

Investigative Journalism with David Harrison and Sara Moralioglu Copy

David Harrison is an award-winning British investigative journalist and documentary-maker with over 35 years’ experience covering major stories in the UK and worldwide. He has worked for leading British national newspapers, including The Sunday Times, The Observer and The Sunday Telegraph, and currently makes television documentaries for Aljazeera’s Investigative Unit.

Sara Moralioglu is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and journalist who produces documentary films and content for leading UK and US broadcasters, including BBC Newsnight and Channel 4. Sara produced Grenfell – 21st Floor (about the tragic tower block fire) which was nominated for the best current affairs film category for the RTS Journalism Awards.

On finding the story

David

Like most journalists, I started off for many years doing news and along the way I was doing investigations. I’ve probably reported in nearly 100 countries. I’ve done investigations of a massive range of topics. I think often investigations spring from a news story that you’ve done and often it comes from a hunch or a feeling that there’s more to this. I think what drew me to it was that after a while you just want to get into things a little bit deeper. Then there is also that drive to expose and to reveal wrongdoing, which is the kind of area of investigative journalism that I’m involved in. You need a huge amount of curiosity. You need to want to know. You need that desire, that thirst, to find out and get behind stories that are often covered quite superficially in the news.

Sara

I started off in natural history documentaries and then moved into anthropology programmes like the Bruce Parry documentaries. As I got older, the subject-matter got more serious. I moved into current affairs and programmes like Newsnight, Panorama and Dispatches. I’m currently at Channel 4 News.

In this work, I think you have to be very curious and want to expose things. I think for me, once I start to get an inclination that something’s wrong or not going as it should be going, you have to be sort of obsessed, really obsessive, to uncover things. Some people just aren’t that interested in things except for what’s going on within their own lives, and some people really are curious about what’s going on in the world.

On process and principles

David

My work has certainly broadened my perspective. I’ve covered stories from all over the world. I also run occasional training courses for journalists in developing countries including Sudan, Algeria, Morocco, Syria and Lebanon. And that’s really helped me, I think, because it really helps you get inside the mentality of a country and its people.

Sara

In terms of process, usually what happens is either I’ll pitch a story about something I’m curious about or I will be approached by the commissioner or an editor. Then it usually starts off with getting access. It’s all about making connections with people and speaking to them—ideally meeting them face-to-face. I think my process is really trying to understand what that person would want out of this and why they should want to expose something, so that they want to tell their story.

One of my objectives has always been about holding those in power accountable and trying to expose the truth to get to the bottom of whatever the issue is. For example, with Grenfell, my main motivation was to give the survivors, who had gone through the most horrific tragedy, a voice.

David

There are lots of principles of journalism that relate to being curious. You’ve got to be dogged, determined, you’ve got to be forensic, curious, sceptical, asking questions all the time. It’s about testing your own thoughts, testing your own evidence. Does it stand up? Is it really watertight or is this a bit flaky?

On being curious

David

I would say try to stay open-minded and challenge your own views, but embrace people, don’t push them away. I’ve found that all over the world if you do that, you embrace people, they embrace you back most of the time and you learn from that. I remember in the war in Afghanistan, the refugees everywhere, people suffering everywhere. I remember this poor family lived in a mud hut and they invited us in to share the last of their food. It’s acts of kindness like that that blow away your prejudice and your ideas about certain groups of people, certain types of people. I would say, yes, stay open-minded. Be receptive to other people’s views and challenge your own views. I think in the end you end up with a broader perspective.

Sara

I think in my work it is really important to listen to people and engage. Try to understand their story and what they’re about and put yourself in their shoes. I think empathy and just communicating and being open-minded are really important and enriching.

The Curious Advantage is an exploration of the behaviour of curiosity and its central role in the digital age, taking the widest possible exploration of things curious—historical, contemporary, neuro-scientific, anthropological, behavioural and business.

Curiosity has profound implications for organisations, leaders and individuals inhabiting the digital reality.  The Curious Advantage provides pragmatic tools and case studies and makes the case for how curiosity is the greatest driver of value in the new digital age. Curiosity is at the heart of the skills required to successfully navigate our digital lives when all futures are uncertain.

The Curious Advantage introduces the 7C’s of Curiosity model—a useful tool for anyone wanting to lead a curious organisation or who wants to challenge themselves to be actively curious.

Get your print or digital copy of The Curious Advantage on Amazon.

Subscribe and listen to The Curious Advantage Podcast.

PODCAST – “52 Weeks of Worship – Lessons in Belief, Learning and Leadership” with Pamay Bassay

In this fascinating episode, Simon Brown, Paul Ashcroft and Garrick Jones are joined by Pamay Bassey, entrepreneur, executive, world traveller, educator, writer, comedian, philosopher and Chief Learning Officer for the Kraft Heinz Company!

How can leaders create a culture of continuous learning and drive the company’s global learning and development strategy and initiatives? What is ‘Learn like an Owner’? What are sacred spaces in our contemporary world? How does the sacred link to curiosity?

Are you curious? Subscribe today! Join the conversation, connect with the authors, and keep exploring curiously! #CuriousAdvantage