ISBN: 9780262350976 | 152 pp. | February 2019


How Attention Works

Finding Your Way in a World Full of Distraction

We are surrounded by a world rich with visual information, but we pay attention to very little of it, filtering out what is irrelevant so we can focus on what we think we need to know. Advertisers, web designers, and other “attention architects” try hard to get our attention, promoting products with videos on huge outdoor screens, adding flashing banners to websites, and developing computer programs with blinking icons that tempt us to click. Often they succeed in distracting us from what we are supposed to be doing. In How Attention Works, Stefan Van der Stigchel explains the process of attention and what the implications are for our everyday lives.

The visual attention system is efficient, Van der Stigchel writes, because it doesn’t waste energy processing every scrap of visual data it receives; it gathers only relevant information. We focus on one snippet of information and assume that everything else is stable and consistent with past experience; that’s why most people miss even the most glaring continuity errors in films. If an object doesn’t meet our expectations, chances are we won’t see it. Van der Stigchel makes his case with examples from real life, explaining, among other things, the limitations of color perception (and why fire trucks shouldn’t be red); the importance of location (security guards and radiologists, for example, have to know where to look); the attention-getting properties of faces and spiders; what we can learn from someone else’s eye movements; why we see what we expect to see (magicians take advantage of this); and visual neglect and unattended information.

Table of Contents

  1. Preface
  2. 1. Barrier? What Barrier? The Illusion of a Rich Visual World
  3. 2. Why Fire Trucks Shouldn't Be Painted Red: What Makes Something Stand Out?
  4. 3. Selection through Attention: Why We Like to Stare at a Blank Wall When We're Thinking
  5. 4. How to Find Your Tent at Glastonbury: Searching High and Low
  6. 5. Your Gateway to the Visual World: How Your Eyes Betray Your Thoughts
  7. 6. The Influence of the Past on Your Attention in the Present: You Only See What You Expect to See
  8. 7. What Happens When It All Goes Wrong? What Brain Damage Can Teach Us about Attention
  9. Acknowledgments
  10. Notes
  11. Index