Really learning (part 2): back to attention

Hello and welcome to this month’s neuro blog!

For those of you who teach, did you think that leveraging emotions was a good idea? If so, how did you practically do so? For those among you keen learners, did you agree that emotions facilitate both the processing and later the recall of new knowledge, as I proposed in my April post?

In this month’s article, I am continuing to look at how we learn and some of the brain processes associated with that activity. I want to return to attention (I hear some of you moaning “oh noooo….). In a future post, I propose to engage you around the notions of meaning and chunking.

As such, in addition to the opinion that we best learn when the new knowledge is associated with a positive emotion, I also hold the view that we best learn when we are able to pay as-close-to undivided attention while being taught. But that is a tall order – judging only by the masse of self-help books which expound on techniques for captivating and retaining an audience’s attention.

I just facilitated a workshop and I was acutely aware of all I was competing against as I sought to keep my audience’s attention: the temperature in the room – with some feeling too hot and others too cold, and yet another bunch complaining of a draft, whether there was coffee left or should we call Catering to ask for a top-up or wait till the next planned pause, the relentless onslaught of emails arriving on their smartphones all screaming “READ ME NOW OR YOU WILL DIE!!”, their neighbour fidgeting, or whispering in their ear, and the handout which had just been circulated… And these are just a few of the distractions which plagued my poor participants throughout our day together.

In a previous article, I wrote that our attention, rather than being mostly voluntary as we may at first contend, is in fact up for grabs. Let me build on this statement and write that my understanding of human attention from a brain-based standpoint is that attention is correlated to salience. While the social function of the brain is meaning-making, its overarching purpose is to keep us alive: in this context, being able to detect early changes in our environment, and, as a result, being able to quickly respond to any emerging threat is a core task of our brain which is therefore constantly on alert.

If our brains are indeed constantly on the lookout for salience, the implications for delivering new learning is to do so in a way that is challenging as well as varied. As trainers, facilitators, educators, we know about varying delivery – whether it’s format – alternating periods of group discussion, self-reflection, role plays, exercises, making them stand up, then sit down again – or ourselves – asking them questions one minute, then telling them something unexpected the next, modulating our voice, using body language to be the salient one in the room and thus retaining their focus.

Making our delivery challenging might be less intuitive. But challenge will help us keep our audience’s attention by making them work for it. I don’t share insights: rather, I invent games where they have to figure those out. I split them into groups and make them compete against each other. I give them role plays which make them nervous, have some even complain but are memorable. Even when I go into more of a teaching mode, I draw weird-looking diagrams which only slowly make sense. I keep them guessing, I cultivate suspense. I don’t answer questions, rather inviting the other participants to share their thoughts first while I answer last. I challenge folks’ comments to encourage debate and ask to be challenged about any theory I advance – and eventually they do.

All of this is quite exhausting! But it’s fun! With variety and challenge, a day’s workshop whizzes by! But fun does not equate to learning, as in retention and recall, right? Join me next month to look at meaning and chunking, and how they mesh with emotions and attention to support learning.

If you’d like to tell me about your behaviour and/or your brain, you will find me at In the meantime, relax and let your brain look after you!

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