Selective attention means ignoring most of the world and focusing on no more than a few things at one. Selective attention means ignoring most of the world and focusing on no more than a few things at one. What you focus on determines what you learn about. (Photo: Vidoslava / Shutterstock)

Brainiacs did a study to find out how your brain decides what to pay attention to

The neuroscientists found out you learn by ignoring almost everything around you.

You're at a party, and all of a sudden, a bunch of guys break out some really cool dance moves. You're so distracted by their performance that you totally don't notice the man suspiciously sneaking out the door behind them.

Humans don't pay attention to everything around them. They notice a lot of things but only focus on a small number of them. A new study out of Princeton University in New Jersey and Stanford University in California is figuring out how this "selective attention" works.

Yael Niv, an alumnus of Tel Aviv University in Israel who is now at Princeton, was one of the study's authors. "If we want to understand learning, we can't ignore the fact that learning is almost always done in a multidimensional 'cluttered' environment," she explained.


The neuroscientists gave participants a learning task and scanned their brains, as neuroscientists are wont to do. The researchers found that people learn by only selectively focusing on certain things. What people pay attention to affects what they learn about, and what they learn about affects what they pay attention to. It's all a bit of an endless loop.

"In summary, our study provides behavioral and neural evidence for a dynamic relationship between attention and learning – attention biases what we learn about, but we also learn what to attend to," write the study's authors.

Apparently this study could help teachers learn how to teach better.

"We want kids to listen to the teacher, but a lot is going on in the classroom – there is so much to look at inside it and out the window," Niv said. "So, it's important to understand how exactly attention and learning interact and how they shape each other."

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