Tag Archives: science

Attentional bias and what it means for your work

or: the magic of little red cars

two little cars outside apartment complex, one red

The Hunt for the Little Red Car” CC image courtesy of screenpunk on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

I recently discovered that there was a name for a phenomenon I’ve been experiencing a lot in my life lately.

Its popular name seems to be the red car effect. More learned folks talk about cognitive biases and label the process selective attention or attentional bias.

These names describe the way we notice all the little red cars on the road after we’ve bought a little red car. We’re pretty sure that there weren’t this many just a few days ago, but now we can’t help seeing them everywhere.

Did all of us visit the dealer in the same week?

Or are we just now noticing the red cars because we’ve started paying more attention to them?

Our new sight isn’t just restricted to cars, or even the purely physical. Everyone seems to be talking about personal empowerment, these days. A lot of folks are into my obscure favorite band (judging by the T-shirts). Have you ever noticed how many people are speaking Polish?

My attentional bias is that I am surrounded by entrepreneurs and small business people. Where did they all come from? I was a worker bee for a long time, and hadn’t spared a thought for entrepreneurship until I started doing it myself. Now, every time I turn around so-and-so is running their own business. And I mean, I know these people. Some of them for years.

And they’ve all got great ideas that I can use. How fortuitous. What serendipity! The Universe — it’s sending me a message just when I need it!

Serendipity. Another word I have begun to look at askance, since I’ve become aware of the red car effect. Merriam-Webster defines serendipity as the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for.

A happy coincidence. Or is it?

Are you paying attention?
The Universe has been giving me a lot of information lately. Sometimes in the form of repetition. The past couple of weeks, I have been struggling with a business plan. The plan looks NOTHING like what I envisioned when I started putting it together. Like the most pampered pooch on the end of an extendable leash, the business plan has its own ideas about where it wants to go. Every time I try to be practical, structured, and business-y, the dang thing keeps pulling in creativity, play, and uncertainty.

It’s as though I’m setting out to go to the Science Museum, and instead end up in a wing filled with paintings by Caravaggio and sculptures by Rodin.

I really like being there, too. But what does this have to do with business?

I’m annoyed. The whole point of a business plan is to be logical. I can play when I’m not trying to do business.

Enter the email. The business plan and I are playing push-me-pull-you, me wondering why our relationship isn’t working, when this message comes across the digital ether and lands in my inbox:

“So many people give up when things don’t go according to their plan. When you decide to go for something, but can’t seem to make it work, don’t back down. The path to achieving your goal may not be what you expected.” (emphasis added)

I’m pretty sure I am not the only person on Coach Jenn Lee’s email list. It would be foolish to conclude the message was written just for me. Her email composition and sending schedule has a lot more to do with her particular circumstances than with my recalcitrant un-businessy business plan.

But that’s not how I felt when I read it.

I was just wondering why my stupid business plan wasn’t conforming to, well… plan.

Is the Universe talking to me (using digital media as the messenger)? Or am I just paying more attention to little red cars?

Why this matters
Here’s the sneaky part about attentional bias. While we’re busy wondering how much new information is actually new (if you’re anything like me, that is), we suddenly have a lot we can say about red cars, little or otherwise. We are aware of the quantity and variety of makes and models, and who is driving them. Which ones are shiny and clean, which have dents in the bumper, or a license plate hanging on by one corner. We notice that there are a lot of different shades of red.

We can say a lot about personal development. Or band T-shirts, our main character’s Polish grandparents, dogs who pull on their leashes. My business plan wants to hang out with Rodin. What does that mean for how I can serve my audience?

That’s the real big deal about paying attention. It gives you information you can use.

Attentional bias. Serendipity. Coincidence. Whatever you wish to call the act of recognition, the result is that the world gets bigger.

And we can do more with it.

Have you had some serendipity in your life recently? I’d love to hear about it.

The science of imagination

image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Recently, I received further confirmation of the power of the imagination, scientifically established.

A NY Times article in April outlined some neuroscientific research which demonstrated a greater stimulation of the reader’s brain than the act of reading itself would require.  Reading about walking, for example, stimulated the motor cortex; and it stimulated a different part of the motor cortex than reading about swinging one’s arms did.  Reading about smells stimulated the part of the brain responsible for the perception of smell.  There was no actual walking going on, and there was no perceptible smell in the room of the reader, but the brain sprang to life, accepting input from a non-tangible source.

The mind created a physical experience.

It makes me think the fMRI images produced during these studies were visual representations of the imagination at work.

I have always related strongly to any well-written story, and to the characters that live there.  Some of the best books have been physically nearly impossible for me to put down, because of my involvement in what was happening.  I have felt literally as though I entered an entirely different world.  Now, it appears as if science is suggesting that, from the perspective of my brain, at least, I have been brought into a different world.

It’s not just a figment of my imagination.

On top of this, studies have shown that readers of fiction developed better empathy, understanding of inter-personal relationships, and an increased ability to perceive the world from different points of view.

This as the result of something which is supposedly not real. Something which is invented.

Maybe reading novels and short stories should be a prerequisite for work in the diplomatic corps.  I like that idea.  World peace through prose.

The most amazing part of the Times article, for me, was the fact that these effects of reading also applied to children who were not reading themselves, but who were read to.  Listeners to these stories experienced the same enhanced empathy and relational intelligence as readers did.

To me, this is compelling outside evidence of something inherent in the story itself, and in the participation of the storytelling experience, which is special and incomparable.

Something essential.

It’s the central fact of art: what is not real is, sometimes, the most real of all.