Attention is Essential for Most Learning and Memory (page 2)
Information taken directly from the environment, such as the light cast by a sparkler, doesn’t last very long no matter what we do. But we can preserve a memory of it by encoding it in some minimal way—for instance, by interpreting a sparkler’s curlicue tail as the letters Jea. The first step in this process is attention: Whatever people pay attention to (mentally) moves into working memory. Information in the sensory register that doesn’t get a person’s attention typically disappears from the memory system.
Paying attention involves directing not only the appropriate sensory receptors (in the eyes, ears, fingertips, etc.) but also the mind toward whatever needs to be learned and remembered. Imagine yourself reading a textbook for one of your classes. Your eyes are moving down each page, but meanwhile you are thinking about something altogether different—a recent argument with a friend, a high-paying job advertised in the newspaper, or your growling stomach. What will you remember from the textbook? Absolutely nothing. Even though your eyes were focused on the words in your book, you weren’t mentally paying attention to the words.
Children, too, often have trouble keeping their attention on a task at hand.
Unfortunately, people can attend to only a very small amount of information at any one time. In other words, attention has a limited capacity. For example, if you are in a room where several conversations are going on at once, you can usually attend to—and therefore can learn from—only one of those conversations. If you are sitting in front of the television with your textbook open in your lap, you can attend to the Friends rerun playing on the TV screen or to your book, but not to both simultaneously. If you are preoccupied in class with your instructor’s ghastly taste in clothing and desperate need for a fashion makeover, you will have a hard time paying attention to the content of the instructor’s lecture.
Exactly how limited is the limited capacity of human attention? People can often perform two or three well-learned, automatic tasks at once. For example, you can walk and chew gum simultaneously, and you can probably drive a car and drink a cup of coffee at the same time. But when a stimulus or event is detailed and complex (as is true for both textbooks and Friends reruns) or when a task requires considerable thought (understanding a lecture and driving a car on an icy mountain road are examples of tasks requiring one’s utmost concentration), then people can usually attend to only one thing at a time.
Learners must be selective about what they focus on and learn. Now we see the reason why: Attention has a limited capacity, allowing only a very small amount of information stored in the sensory register to move on to working memory. The vast majority of information that the body initially receives is quickly lost from the memory system, much as we might quickly discard most of that junk mail we receive every day.
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