As someone with two kids with ADHD, attention is a big deal to us.  I’ve made it my job to understand how attention works, how to get it, how to focus it, and how sustain it, because this information is vital to helping my kids learn how to learn most effectively.

Turns out, this has a shiny, interesting byproduct- the shift in the advertising and the PR markets is becoming all about how to get and sustain attention.    Whether you are talking about parenting, education, presentations, marketing- aspects of all of these endeavors involves, at its heart, attention.

Every human is equipped with a brain that has been customized by biology and experience over time.  We now know that brains are always changing, forming new connections, pruning out old ones, even after you are an adult.  People’s faces can be encoded on one neuron in your brain.* For everything you read, everything you see, everything you learn, your brain is changed by this process and customized for your needs.

Attention is the system that gets you to focus and possibly encode new information.  Our brains are constantly looking for new information and running complex algorithms to determine whether that thing moving in your peripheral vision is harmless, or a danger.  That’s part of our simplest flight or fight mechanism, and we can’t turn that off.

However, for people with ADHD, that system runs on high alert most times.  Every new and novel stimulus, from the kid dropping a pencil next to you to the teacher writing on the board, to thinking about what’s for lunch are competing for brain space and attention concurrently.  With ADHD, people have more trouble than most in directing their attention to a particular stimuls and tuning out all the others.  I often describe it as trying to watch TV with someone who loves to channel surf.  Just when you are getting into a show, someone comes along and changes the channel, and you don’t have the remote. Very annoying.

You get lots of little pieces of information this way, but integrating it into a coherent whole can be difficult.  When you attention keeps switching to pay attention up to each novel piece of information, you can lose a grip on the story line, and having to refocus can take time.  Medication for ADHD essentially gives people back the remote control, and their brains become a bit better at prioritizing what needs immediate attention and what can wait in line.

Attention essentially lets us decide what piece of information we can work on in our “working memory”- basically your mind’s lab bench.  You can work on problems, write, solve  math problems- but sooner or later, that project is going to need to be put away or stored, so you can move on to the next thing.  Some things get trashed, others get put away for short term or long term storage- and the more interesting things are, the more other pieces of information or relevant connections you can make to the new information, the more “copies” are put away in different folders in your brain.  Each time you think about your mom’s cookies for example, you not only can get to this memory from thinking about your mom, seeing a picture, but even seeing a silimar cookie or smelling cookies in the oven can bring this full memory back in all of its sensory glory.    This memory has many connections, so you can retrive it from many different storage places, so to speak.

Attention is something we all want.  Emotionally, it validates us as people.  It allows us to make deeper and more meaningful connections.  But if you overload the attention service, things become chaotic- the lab bench has too much stuff going on, and your brain can go so far as to boil over – many temper tantrums in adults and kids are caused by attention buffers beging overloaded and going into meltdown, or in entreme cases, people simply go to sleep to knock out the background noise, explaining why babies often simply go to sleep even in noisy shopping malls- their attention system gets overloaded, they get cranky, and respond by shutting off and sleeping.

If you really want to get ahead in the world of marketing, in the world of PR, presentation, education- whatever, really- it wouldn’t hurt to start by understanding how you can get and then focus the inborn attention mechanism we all have.  Then you can start to figure out how to sustain it, encode information into memory, and make it useful and relevant for your audience.

John Medina has a great book out about the Brain that I really think everyone should read- it’s called Brain Rules, and I have links to it below.  You could do worse than to learn how to use and manipulate the one tool every human has with them every day.

*See Brain Rules, by John Medina, for more in depth discussion about the brain and science- I’m really enjoying the Audible version.  His website is incredibly helpful as well.