Making sense of the senses: The real cost of paying attention

Making sense of the senses: The real cost of paying attention

Posted by Jason Rogers on Tue 11 Nov. 2014 - 5 minute read

We live in a demanding world: the snort of an email, the squeal of a text, fare alerts, breaking news, SQUIRREL! What was I saying? Oh yes, we live in a distracted world. With DVRs holding thousands of hours of entertainment; phones and tablets keeping us occupied while we watch those thousands of DVRed hours, it seems that something always has our attention. But what does that really mean?

The term itself is used a bit like a commodity: always demanding that we pay for it. The affectionally dubbed “Brain Bank” allows a controlled bit of withdrawal at any given moment. We are literally trapped in a world bombarded by sensory information. As you read this, you are neglecting your world in order to process these words. What do you hear right now? What sweater are you wearing? Now are you thinking about what you are going to wear tomorrow? Or what’s on your calendar? SQUIRREL! Please allow me to withdrawal a bit of currency from your Brain Bank to discuss the real cost of paying attention.

The Senses

We have but five: seeing, smelling, tasting, hearing, and feeling. Like the confluence of a mighty river, our brains process all five streams at once in various neuronal nooks and crannies, and individually we experience this world as one concrete illusion. But there is no such thing as reality.

The truth, if there is such a thing, is that life is an individual experience. I can experience the color green, but how do I know that you know what my green is? The Lacrimosa movement by Mozart can reduce me to tears, yet others find it boring and blasé. I could go on and on. In fact, my original draft had over five pages of information on the individual senses. But I believe for the sake of brevity, I will quote the Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, “All you touch and all you see is all your life will ever be.”

Association Cortices

The goblins of your attentional finances

If the senses are streams of information flowing into the mighty river that is your brain, then you have a Lock Tender. But this one is far more elusive. Some would even say imaginary. This, of course, is the voice in your head. It is you, or at least what you think is you. We call it consciousness. We call it an emergent property. We call it the Ghost in the Machine. Philosophers love to talk about the brain as the fat & neural tissue and the mind as that inexplicable part that makes you, you. Psychologists refer to this as perceptual “top-down” processing, as opposed to the sensory “bottom-up” experience.

When I was younger, my Momma would say to my sister and me, “Turn the radio down so I can see.” What?! What she meant is that she could not concentrate on her visual world when her auditory world was too loud.

Missing information

How much information do we miss because our Brain Bank is too busy paying attention elsewhere? There is a fancy name for this: “change blindness”. There is a hilarious video in which there are people wearing black or white shirts. They have a ball and you are instructed to count the number of passes among the group wearing black. Little do you notice that a gorilla dances his way through the video!

In research seeing what is not there or missing what is right in front of you is called “observation bias”. It can be very difficult to stay “blind”, which is to say naïve, when conducting research. This is why we often employ others to help. Others who have no bias towards anything and can accurately record an experience. But this top-down vs bottom-up dance is occurring right now in your head, a million times a second, as Clapton said, “Carving deep blue ripples in the tissue of your mind.” This battle spills out to your attention. Too much internal chatter, and your Brain Bank has paid all your resources and you stop attending to what you hear.

Attention in your own life and/or business

So what does all this mean? Our bottom-up experiences continually battling our top-down processing for control of where and how our Brain Bank spends our focus and attention, much like headlights onto the night freeway. Some of us have a lot of internal noise - SQUIRREL! - that makes it difficult to sustain our attention. Others spend significantly less time looking at socially relevant information because of afflictions like Autism Spectrum Disorder.

We are easily distracted. They make medications for that. I self-medicate with coffee and music. Others try Ritalin. But learning how to spend your Brain Bank’s attention has the potential to mean much more in our daily lives. If we can filter out distractions we can enrich our sensory experience. Buddhists call this “quieting the mind” so you can experience the world with “beginner’s mind”, which is to say with no bias. You are free to experience the world without the Lock Tender prohibiting anything. Eliminating distraction means we can focus more on what matters, like driving. But working with our Brain Bank to pay out our attention can also benefit our relationships as well.

Communication and attention

Some will say the key to any relationship is communication. I do not disagree, per se, but instead offer that the keys (plural) are communication and attention. Not enough attention and the dog poops on the carpet. He’s vindictive and he wants attention. He doesn’t differentiate yelling from praise. To him attention is attention. On the contrary, too much attention from anyone and I feel overwhelmed. I like my space. Finding that balance is the key.

Are you paying your clients enough attention?

The same principle applies to your business as well. Are you paying your clients enough attention? Could some use more and others less? The relationship grows when all parties are comfortable with the attentional expenses and happy to pay in return. Furthermore, both must be able to communicate effectively. Otherwise we end up talking more when we should be talking less. Finally, it must be a two-way street and reciprocated. New relationships often demand much of our attention, sometimes to the expense of existing ones. How many friendships are strained due to a new romantic relationship? But again, the Brain Bank allows small withdrawals at a time, so we must be careful with whom we spend our attention.

Finding that balance is difficult, but can be rewarding. Driving without distraction, with full attention, can be monotonous but reduces accidents. That email can wait until you get home. That tweet probably isn’t as important as watching out for the deer on the side of the road. Listening attentively to others can improve retention and create a closer bond.


One of my favorite stories tells of a Zen Buddhist Master. He was having tea with a friend when a letter arrived from family. It was urgent and needed to be opened immediately. But the Master, ever present with Beginners Mind, left it unopened, choosing instead to focus his Brain Banks’s expenses on his guest. A powerful lesson in our ever-distracted world.

May all your squirrels stay up their trees

Riddle me this: in the time you spent reading, what else was trying to withdrawal from your Brain Bank? Perhaps it was the TV? Or yet another snort from an email? 

squirrel eating in a tree

A thousand times a second our senses are overwhelmed and we do live in a distracted world. Learning how to budget our attention and spend wisely can vastly improve many aspects of our lives, both personal and professional. May you be like the Zen Master and leave your letters unopened when visiting with company. May your Brain Bank pay appropriately for each and every relationship you hold dear. And may all your squirrels stay up their trees and leave you be.  

Visit Jason on Facebook, LinkedIn, and/or Instagram (@xaveig).

Don't miss out on the latest blog posts
Share this post
Relevant Blogs

Design your own product: consumer experience and abandonment behavior

Researchers Krause and Franke studied how our experiences change while designing our own products. How do these experiences influence whether we finish a product or abandon the process?

Understanding consumer buying behavior

What predicts a sale, and what causes consumers to buy from a particular brand over another? To know how and why customers make decisions, you can take a deeper look at consumer behavior.

Top 5 Consumer behavior research on the Behavioral Research Blog

Observational research is becoming more and more popular in consumer science and market research. From on-site behavioral observations in supermarkets to advanced multimodal lab studies.