This brain resource is your most valuable and your most scarce...

In our commercial world commodities that are high in demand and low in supply command great value. Internally, we have a resource that is the basis for engagement, learning, respect, felt empathy and even love. This resource is also under huge demand, internally and externally - we are bombarded minute by waking minute with opportunities to spend this resource, often without our conscious awareness. Yet the high-demand and low-supply ‘rule’ does not apply to this resource, for it remains massively undervalued.

Can you guess what this resource is? Most people say time' when I ask this question in workshops, but use of time is really an artefact of this resource. It’s attention.

When it comes to attention, we have the supply-demand formula around the wrong way: we think that we have ample supply, more than enough to cope with attentional demands. This is probably the key reason why we don’t value our attention in the way that we should. And yet, it is where our attention falls that determines so much of our current reality and our future.

Given this, attention is wildly complex in its own right, and neuroscience has yet to understand fully how attention works. Even defining attention is difficult. We can easily come to a common understanding for other cognitive terms such as memory and perception, yet there is no standard definition of ‘attention’. The book How Attention Works, by Stefan Van Der Stigchel, has a more than decent working definition for attention:

Attention is the mechanism we use to make a selection from all of the ... information available to us and then to process only that information.
— Stefan Van Der Stigchel, How Attention Works

Van Der Stigchel’s definition is insightful because it exposes the inherent limitation of attention: attention is selective, and in selecting an information source, we filter out most everything else. Think of the party phenomenon of someone calling your name from across the room. Your attention zooms in on your name, at the cost of your current conversation, which you now no longer hear.

We can only attend to a fraction of the inputs into our brain, and we can only remember a fraction of what we attend to. We operate with a double reducing filter system in play every waking moment, as this telling infographic shows:



This model from Tor Norretrander confirms the view that our awareness/attention is a fraction (0.7%) of the inbound information from our senses. Take a little time to think about this… how else could magicians weave incredible (literally) illusions? How else can you constantly miss continuity mistakes in movies? Why can’t you text and drive well at the same time? The rich experience of life that our senses provide us lull us into a false belief that our brains have attentional superpowers.

Visually, at least, the brain can compensate for our attentional shortcomings. The brain has a neat trick when it comes to incoming visual information: it can fill in the gaps for us. Your eyes actually don’t see everything that is in your field of view, and to avoid annoying black spots, it pattern-matches the fill in the gaps. It’s like you have constant software running that applies the healing brush you find in Photoshop.

Listening, however, has no such help from the brain. The act of listening is simply an outcome of selective attention. As a sense, hearing is our second weakest, according to the Norretrander model. Good listeners, however, work against this limitation, and are great at keeping attention on the speaker. They are adept at filtering out other conversations, particularly those inside the mind. For me, this is mindful or observational listening. Mindfulness, in this context, is the redirection of attention away from thought to being present with our senses. Hard to do, especially now in a world (internal and external) that bombards us with layered demands for our attention.

I have developed a model of listening that is linked to how much attention you don't spend on yourself. This model, based on Theory U bu Otto Scharmer, illustrates 4 levels of listening, from Distracted, Factual, Empahtic and Engrossed. Most of us spend most of our time in levels 1 or 2.

Levels of attention in the ‘listening channel’.

Levels of attention in the ‘listening channel’.

Conversations that really matter demand that you be in level 3, where most of your attention is on the other person, or people. Level 4 is characterised by deep romantic love or fully immersive performance where very little attention is on your conscious self.

My mission with this post is to raise your awareness of the preciousness of your own attention. It will determine your success or failure in any venture, any learning or any relationship. Grow your awareness of how you spend your attention, for most of us wander through our days with little, if any awareness of how we have spent our attention. Help others to shift their attention, for this is a core skill and behaviour of leadership.

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If the brain is a system, and the outputs include decision making, sensing, problem solving, creating, collaborating and more, then the quality of these outputs are dependent on the quality of inputs to the system. Most of us don’t consider sleeping, eating and hydrating as anything more than satisfying a biological need, yet these, and other factors play a huge part in how well you turn up each day.

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