curious conversations

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Curious Advantage compass logo
September 30, 2021

Stefan Van der Stigchel is Professor of Cognitive Psychology at Utrecht University and the author of How Attention Works (MIT Press).

On attention and curiosity

As a researcher I study the visual domain, what we pick up from the world around us. I think the brain is inherently curious, because it has to pick up information around us. It has to sample the environment. And we sample by a process called attention. We focus our attention on the things that we want to explore, the things that we want to know more about, the things that are relevant to us. The way attention works is that we can only sample a part of the external world at one time, and this forces on us a decision about where to focus. We can all be in the same room, and because we all have different views about the world, we all focus our attention on different things.

If you’re curious about the world around you, you will focus your attention differently, given what you’re curious about. Meaning that the way we sample the world is determined by what we want to pick up from the world around us.

On using knowledge

If two people are looking at a painting and you study at where people look, just look at the eye movement patterns, you will see that we sample that painting differently.

Then if you’re quiet and after a period you talk to each other, you’ll immediately notice that both of have picked up on much different information and that will also influence how you interpret the painting. I’ve had lovely experiences with people who know a lot about art telling me and informing me about where to look on a specific painting. I would never have been able to pick up on that information if I had not had that knowledge. Without that knowledge I would not have picked up on that information, and I would have perceived the world differently.

On focus

From an evolutionary point of view, we have to pay attention to certain things. If something starts to move abruptly, we will all pay attention to that piece of information. We have to. It’s one aspect of our behaviour that has led us to survive, because someone might cross the road in front of our car, or enter the room, and it might actually constitute a threat. A lot of people complain about this, right? ‘I’m reading, but I’m being distracted all the time.’ But we don’t say, ‘I tried to go to work, but every time I crossed a busy road, I am distracted by all these moving cars!’ It’s the same evolutionary process at work. The brain doesn’t know whether the thing that’s flashing on the screen in your periphery is evolutionarily important, whether it’s actually a threat or it’s completely irrelevant. The brain doesn’t know it. The brain only has one modus. If something flashes, if something’s moving, we should automatically move our attention towards that information.

The good news is you can make this work for you rather than against you. You can instruct yourself to pick up on certain information by giving yourself a specific assignment to focus on. For example, if you enter a room you could instruct yourself to look at architecture of that room, your attention will be guided by the task in hand.

On your attentional window

An attentional window is the size of your spotlight. As a spotlight in the theatre, your attentional spotlight can also change in size. When you’re reading something, you have a small attentional spotlight. You’re focusing on the letters, on the individual words. However, when you’re in a new supermarket for the first time and you’re looking for your favourite pack of milk, you have a large spotlight. We’re constantly zooming in and zooming out, given the task that we have. There are some very interesting individual differences between people who are more able to look at a world with a smaller spotlight, and other people who tend to look at the world with a large spotlight.  You need both.

On concentration

What is the difference between attention and concentration? Attention is the filtering process, what are you pick up from the world around you right now? Concentration is sustained attention.

Concentration is like a muscle, you need to train it. Meditation is a very good concentration exercise, it’s like hyper-concentration. It is concentration boiled down to its essence. Focus on something and ignore all the external and internal distractions.

On bias

As everyone, I generally believe that I’m right! And so, what I try to do when I’m making a statement, like for instance about climate change, I really try to take one step back and think, ‘What’s the evidence? What’s my evidence? Where do I get this information from?’ I try to be conscious of my own bubble and see if I am perhaps incorrect.

One piece of advice

Remember that your perception of the world is limited, but that’s not a problem. It’s actually a solution to a huge problem, because we cannot deal with all the incoming information. But that means that our attention is something that’s very precious. Try to think of your attention as a resource that is very valuable and use it wisely.

The Curious Advantage is an exploration of the behaviour of curiosity and its central role in the digital age, taking the widest possible exploration of things curious—historical, contemporary, neuro-scientific, anthropological, behavioural and business.

Curiosity has profound implications for organisations, leaders and individuals inhabiting the digital reality.  The Curious Advantage provides pragmatic tools and case studies and makes the case for how curiosity is the greatest driver of value in the new digital age. Curiosity is at the heart of the skills required to successfully navigate our digital lives when all futures are uncertain.

The Curious Advantage introduces the 7C’s of Curiosity model—a useful tool for anyone wanting to lead a curious organisation or who wants to challenge themselves to be actively curious.

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