From a jungle of sensations sometime we want to pick out a single leaf. It is essential that we can tune out details as we simply can’t process all of the information our senses take in; consider that neuroscientists reckon each eye receives 100 megabits of information flow every second. This compares to the fastest broadband connection available. Our brain must therefore label what is important and filter out the stuff that doesn't matter. And so we give greater weight to what is noteworthy, perhaps a sudden movement, an unusual colour pattern or a strange shape. This is our brain’s way of working: it doesn’t read through all of our previous experiences but instead uses a quick rule of thumb approach. If we think of perception as a sort of click of the camera, we can compare committing that experience to memory as developing film for an old-style camera. In the dark room of our mind, previous experiences can then colour meaning and infuence what we commit to memory.
We must focus somewhere. And strictly speaking multi-tasking is a myth, at least to our brain. Neuroscientist say that when we try to do two tasks at the same time, like say talking to someone while texting a friend, we might think that we are multitasking, but our brain isn’t splitting its beam between the two tasks. Instead it is rapidly switching back and forth, to texting, then to our friend, then back again. It’s no wonder we don’t quite “hear” everything said. What is more, this switching becomes harder as you age. But you can get a better grip on your attention. While listening to a radio talk show, try turning your attention on and off every minute. Listen intently, drift off, then concentrate on what’s being said again. Carry on like this for five to ten minutes. If you practice this technique each day, you’ll notice how much the power of your attention can vary. Gradually, your skills at recognizing the difference will sharpen and you will tighten your control over your attention. Attention can be trained to behave itself. And scientists find that physical exercise also helps.
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