What Consumes Your Attention Controls Your Life

(With apologies for hacking the title of the Lifehacker post linked below.)

There is plenty of evidence that our brains are habit machines. Neuroscience finds that when neurons (brain cells) fire, they connect to other neurons. Over several times that a neuronal “chain” fires, that set of connections becomes smoother, kind of like a path worn through a field or forest by consistent traffic. In this sense, you become what you habitually think. In her book Rapt (which I haven’t read, but have heard good things about) Winnifred Gallagher comes to this conclusion: “Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love – is the sum of what you focus on.”

There is also plenty of evidence that our brains have trouble differentiating between something we’ve imagined or viewed and something we’ve done. This means that, if your attention can be captured and you view something, a little part of your brain may think you’ve actually done it, or behaved in that way before. This, along with the path-building nature of our brains, means that our behavior can be “programmed”, at least slightly.

These two effects, habitual brains and misremembering, form the foundation of advertising and our attention culture.

As example, TV and the internet are finely tuned attention capture devices (see this Lifehacker post).

TV networks have had decades of learning about how to capture and keep our attention.  As the post says, we hang on for one more episode, during which our attention is directed to ads, which are also finely tuned to trigger our consumption – to modify our behavior. With TV, the purchase of an advertised item is separated from the advertisement itself, because we (as of this writing) have to go to the store or, depending on the time of night you are watching TV, make a phone call. This decision and effort represents a barrier to purchase.

The internet is also a finely tuned attention capture device that directs us to ads. However, it may be more dangerous because the same purchase barriers either don’t exist or are much lower in transactions on the web. (In fact, this HBR notes that retail businesses based on a storefront model need to rethink their strategy in the face of ‘ambient shopping’ on the web and mobile devices.) Therefore, our action (a completed purchase) is more closely connected to our intent (desire for a product) on the web than on the TV.

However, according to Gallagher, it is not merely our shopping and spending that is manipulated, but our very core, our thought patterns. Perhaps we should rethink how we deploy our limited attention.  We want to become what we intend to rather than what we attend to.

Question: How do you decide what gets your attention?