Blog > Focused attention

November 6, 2010

Warning: Strong language alert

Focused attention is one of the 12 Pillars of Wisdom as devised by the Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge, UK. I’ve just been reading about it in the 30 October issue of New Scientist.

Here’s how the boffins describe focused attention: “Read a word and you will automatically hear it pop into your head. This is an example of what is known as an overlearned or prepotent response. It is such a basic reaction that it is hard to inhibit. Doing so takes concentration and attention.

The ability to inhibit prepotent responses can be measured by what is called the Stroop effect. In a typical Stroop test, the reflex is confused by showing, for example, the word ‘green’ written in red ink. The subject then has to name the colour of the ink rather than the read out word.”

Here’s a doubly hard version of the Stroop test in which the subject not only has to name the coloured word but also distinguish between two possible answers.

Which of the words at the bottom is the name of the colour that the word at the top is written in?

Apparently this is “a complex task that recruits different regions that are simultaneously involved in focused and sustained attention. It is known to involve the right frontal cortex.”

Which reminds me of an improv game called Mind Fuck. It’s an introductory game and is designed to focus attention. (BTW, I prefer this name to the Stroop Effect – it’s far more descriptive!)

Here’s how it’s played.

Players stand in a circle.

Round 1: Point to a person and say their name. That person goes next.

Round 2: Point to a person and say someone else’s name. The named person goes next.

Round 3: Point to a person and say someone else’s name. The pointed to person goes next.

Selecting red or green would be a doddle after all that! Which is the point really. A lot of improv warm-up games are designed to bring us into the present and focus attention.

When using improv games within organisations, we’re sometimes criticised for wasting time with these ‘silly games’. When people are working in organisations where continuous partial attention is the norm, a few minutes focusing attention and getting the brain firing in a different way can support whatever ‘real’ work follows.

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