Selective attention


Your brain takes the input data it receives from your senses and builds a model of the world for you to live in. One of the things that it has to deal with is too much data. There are lots and lots of tiny details. If you paid attention to everything, you wouldn't be able to pay attention to the important things — like a tiger hiding in the grass ready to jump out at you! To deal with this excess data, you brain allows you to concentrate — to focus your attention on what matters.

In the picture in the link below, there are two teams of students, one with white shirts, one with black. Each team has a basketball. To test your powers of concentration, click on the picture. This will link to a YouTube video created by selective attention researcher Daniel Simons. In the video, each team will walk around and pass their ball to members of their own team. Your job is to count the number of passes among the players on the team with the white shirts.

Did you get the right number of passes?

But of course, that's not the real point of the video, as they explained at the end. The real point is that many of you will not have noted the "subtle" (?) effects that the researcher slipped in.

The real point is that selective attention can lead you astray if you make the wrong judgment about what the point of an activity is. In this class, if you treat it as if the point were to memorize all of our equations and "facts" and to learn how to plug numbers into those equations to get answers, then you will miss the main point of what we are trying to do — learn how to make sense and think scientifically!

Joe Redish 7/12/11

Article 233
Last Modified: March 11, 2019