In times of mobile phone bans while driving, the topic of attention and attention spans is becoming more and more interesting to researchers. Have you ever wondered how many things you can pay attention to? And what happens to all the things you are not paying attention? Where do they go? Say, I ask you about your socks, suddenly you become aware of them, but at what cost? What if the things you see and the things you hear don’t come from the same direction, does that influence your attention span?
In the 1950s, George Miller wrote the famous book:”The Magic Number 7+/-2″. This book stipulates that we can pay attention to roughly 7+/-2 pieces of information. Now, what is a piece of information? Looking at phone numbers, this is easily explained. Say my phone number is 732-26-52. 732 represents one piece of information, 26 another, etc. For some people however, 7 is one piece, 3 another, etc. So depending on how people present the information, you can see how big a chunk represents one piece of information for them (it is no coincidence that telephone numbers are roughly 7-9 numbers long!)
Now, in the mornings this number might be slightly less, and for kids this number might be as low as 2+/-1. Have you ever told a kid to go upstairs (1), brush his teeth (2), put on some pants (3), and get the backpack (4), and next time you looked, he had barely made it up the stairs and was wondering what to do next? Simply, because it was too much information!
So, if consciously we can pay attention to 7+/-2 pieces, where is all the rest? Simply, unconscious. Unconsciously you can pay attention to about 2.3million pieces of information. Your unconscious mind controls your enzymes, heart beat, breathing patterns, and furthermore constructs reality as you see and experience it. Additionally, if information comes through different senses from different directions, we tend to be unable to properly compute it. That is why speaker phone from the front of the car is alright, yet from if the sounds comes from the back it is just as distracting as if you were on the phone itself.
What happens when you overload someone with information is that they are prone to jump into a trance. This fact is used in many hypnotic inductions to depotentiate dominant hemispheric activity, which basically means that you give up trying to follow what is being said and instead “pop inside” to let your unconscious make sense of the information. While hypnotists take advantage of this, teachers many times are unaware of it and do not take advantage of this advanced learning state that could be accessed.
So, if you want people to remember what you tell them to do, make it user friendly and do not ask too much at once as this will lead people to forget what was said, remember, it’s only so much we can pay attention to!!