Mind Wandering and Selective Attention
It’s a challenge to maintain attention on something for too long. Inevitably our minds wander and we think about other things. “What should I have for lunch?” “How many meetings do I have coming up?” “I wonder what I should do for my son’s birthday…” These are all common thoughts that may get in the way of normal attention. But surely some of the external environment must be getting through! If not, wouldn’t we get hit by a bus every time our mind wandered while crossing the street?
The answer is pretty simple: we pay attention to the world around us, just not enough to notice until we have to. Put another way, we notice the bus coming because it’s moving right at us, and if we don’t move, we’ll die. The part of our brains designed for “executive functions” like decision-making and attention processing has to prioritize information. If our minds start to wander, only the absolute essential information is getting through.
So does this mean if your audience’s minds wander during a presentation, we’re helpless? Mostly, yes. Recent research shows that when people “tune out”, their minds still process the world around us, just much, much less than they usually do. In effect, they still hear every part of the presentation, and they might think they’re looking at the screen, but they are really just thinking about the dinner plans for later.
Research on attention usually comes back to the “spotlight” theory of attention. We focus on one specific area, and everything else fades into the background. In this case, if your mind wanders, the spotlight turns off, or at least dims significantly. The spotlight only turns back on when the bus is about to hit you, or if you hear a surprisingly loud honk from the car behind you after the light changes.
This means that it’s actually pretty easy to break mind-wandering. Any time there is a dramatic change in a presentation, it refreshes attention. For example, you could switch from PowerPoint slides to a demo, then to a video of a conversation, and then back to slides. This could help bring the audience back into focus and keep the presentation on track.
Handy, T. C., & Kam, J. W. Y. (2015). Mind wandering and selective attention to the external world. Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology = Revue Canadienne de Psychologie Expérimentale, 69(2), 183–9. doi:10.1037/cep0000051