You’ve probably been frustrated a time or two because your spouse wasn’t “paying attention” to you. But why is this? Are they just trying to ignore us or is there more going on than meets the eye?
It turns out a lot of us have wandering minds and struggle to stay focused. In fact, when someone is speaking to us, our minds typically wander anywhere from 20 to 40 percent of the time. Voluntarily keeping our attention on one thing continuously can take a lot of effort, so it’s not surprising that your spouse struggles with this sometimes.
A quick glimpse in to our brain may help us understand why this happens: We take in thousands of bits of sensory data in seconds, cross-reference that data against the information stored in 140 billion brain cells in a micro-second, and retrieve memories of everything from our first date to the last time we got into an argument all from the same group of stimuli. And that’s just what we are thinking about on the conscious level. Our brains simultaneously are signaling us to have emotional responses, which we may or may not be able to understand or even consciously recognize. At the unconscious level, our brains are making sure our bodies remember to do important, automatic things, like breathe and make our hearts beat.
Here’s how it works:
Our brain is built for survival. So it always is on the alert for impending danger and potential food. But the brain can’t take it all in at once, so it has learned to be selective, bringing into focus only those stimuli that seem important for our survival.
Recent studies have shown that once the prefrontal cortex starts to focus in on an object, it sends signals to the visual cortex, commanding the eyes to focus on that object. Soon, both parts of the brain are exchanging information. What is even more amazing is how they begin to oscillate in time with each other, showing the give-and-take of information as it is actually flowing between the two brain regions.
We can also produce this effect by telling someone to focus on a particular object. Most brains will readily obey, apparently taking such instruction as a potential cue for survival.
Luckily, there are ways to keep others attention spans from burning out, once we understand how they work. So, if you want your spouse to pay attention to you, here are a few very important tips:
• Tell them in advance what’s important regarding what you are about to say.
• Keep the information coming in short chunks (three sentences or less), to give the short-term memory time to process.
• Keep saying why this information is important, so that their brains will file the information away and make room for your next chunk of data.
• Pause to let the first bit of information you have given them to process before proceeding with more information.
• Be sure to link what you are saying to things they already know, to help the brain with the cross-referencing process.
• Include methods that the brain recognizes as potential changes in our survivability, such as:
- expected rewards
- strong emotions
So the next time “they” aren’t paying attention, ask yourself what you’re missing.