3 Smart Things: What You Might Not Know About Attention

Alyssa Foote

1. We gradually become less attentive as we age—and not just because we stop giving a damn. The phenomenon is due to a shrinking “useful field of view,” the feature of visual attention that helps us recognize at a glance what’s important to focus on. Studies show that kids have a similarly limited field of view, hindering their ability to register the complete visual world around them.

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2. TSA officials aren’t particularly attentive searchers. One experiment found that airport scanner operators were just 6 percent better than untrained test subjects at spotting hidden objects. Another study found that the fewer contraband items that had been discovered in a given time period, the more likely operators were to miss hidden objects. As a result, some airports have started regularly inserting images of forbidden swag onto operators’ screens.

3. Refocusing someone’s attention can have concrete physical effects. One such example: The military is using VR to help treat third-degree burns. In a study, putting patients in a virtual snowy environment was shown to have a pain-relief effect similar to that of morphine.

Adapted from How Attention Works: Finding Your Way in a World Full of Distraction , by Stefan van der Stigchel, out March 12

This article appears in the March issue. Subscribe now.

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