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How the Human Brain Decides What Is Important and What's Not (neurosciencenews.com) 63

New submitter baalcat writes: A new study reported by Neuroscience News sheds light on how we learn to pay attention in order to make the most of our life experiences. From the report: "The Wizard of Oz told Dorothy to 'pay no attention to that man behind the curtain' in an effort to distract her, but a new Princeton University study sheds light on how people learn and make decisions in real-world situations. The findings could eventually contribute to improved teaching and learning and the treatment of mental and addiction disorders in which people's perspectives are dysfunctional or fractured. Participants in the study performed a multidimensional trial-and-error learning task, while researchers scanned their brains using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The researchers found that selective attention is used to determine the value of different options. The results also showed that selective attention shapes what we learn when something unexpected happens. For example, if your pizza is better or worse than expected, you attribute the learning to whatever your attention was focused on and not to features you decided to ignore. Finally, the researchers found that what we learn through this process teaches us what to pay attention to, creating a feedback cycle -- we learn about what we attend to, and we attend to what we learned high values for. 'If we want to understand learning, we can't ignore the fact that learning is almost always done in a multidimensional 'cluttered' environment,' says senior author Yael Niv, an associate professor in psychology and the Princeton Neuroscience Institute. '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. So, it's important to understand how exactly attention and learning interact and how they shape each other.'" The study has been published in the journal Neuron.
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How the Human Brain Decides What Is Important and What's Not

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  • Stimulus Control (Score:3, Informative)

    by srwood ( 99488 ) on Thursday January 19, 2017 @09:10AM (#53695485)

    This has been well studied https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stimulus_control

  • Life becomes a lot simpler once you learn that most things you see/hear/read aren't important and you're able to filter them out.
    • Life becomes a lot simpler once you learn that most things you see/hear/read aren't important and you're able to filter them out.

      Exactly. Babies have to learn to ignore the million nerves sending signals about the cloth touching their skin. There's a lot of stuff our eyeballs see but only so much stuff our brains can process. Winnowing is crucial.

      Useful semi-automatic winnowing is probably developed via evolution over generations, the Darwin Award winners not paying attention to something crucial.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    The findings could eventually contribute to improved teaching and learning and the treatment of mental and addiction disorders in which people's perspectives are dysfunctional or fractured.

    Yeah, no, this will help advertising, which will drive more addictions, not cure them.

  • by rmdingler ( 1955220 ) on Thursday January 19, 2017 @09:37AM (#53695581) Journal
    An example in the article is how we learn to focus on the speed and proximity of vehicles when crossing the street, rather than their colors.

    Is that what makes the rabbit rush out of danger and then dart back under the wheels? My Lapine is a bit rusty, but are they shouting, "Oooo, look at the candy apple red on that pretty truck!"?

    Hundreds, maybe thousands, of ingrained calculations are at work when you cross a busy street... unless you're a millenial on a cell phone.

  • My brain decides to store things I don't care about and refuses to store things I specifically study. I can remember many memory tricks, but using them does not help. I can rattle off the wives of Henry the VIIIth despite not taking history since high school, but not the names of people I just met and have tried to remember. I can tell you a lot about some random things I looked up once, but don't ask me my license plate number.
    • You think that's strange? I can remember the most complicated passwords after reading them once, but it usually takes about half a year for me to remember my coworkers' names.

    • by hey! ( 33014 ) on Thursday January 19, 2017 @11:31AM (#53696271) Homepage Journal

      My brain decides to store things I don't care about and refuses to store things I specifically study.

      From your perspective that's a bug. From your brain's perspective it's a feature. Your agenda is getting a good mark in your course. Your brain's agenda is to survive, reproduce, and generally have a good time while doing so.

      The thing that you think of as "you" is just a tiny film of consciousness on top of an ocean of unconscious activity. You think "you" live in the present, but actually it takes over 300 milliseconds for your consciousness to become aware of anything, and by then, most of the time, your brain has decided what to do about it. "You" mainly come up with rationalizations for decisions your brain has already made. Which is not to say that consciousness isn't important; it isn't quite as sovereign as it believe itself to be.

      • My brain decides to store things I don't care about and refuses to store things I specifically study.

        From your perspective that's a bug. From your brain's perspective it's a feature. Your agenda is getting a good mark in your course. Your brain's agenda is to survive, reproduce, and generally have a good time while doing so.

        The brain's "agenda" is not at cross purposes with studying. Either the studying is being done wrong or the presentation of the knowledge is wrong. Not that I will say how to do either, far be it from me to do so. However, I will suggest to look back at times when remembering something was easy and figure out what made remembering work for you.

        Even the amount of knowledge needed for someone to be competent in a field, particularly when that knowledge is written out in detail,
        is enough to fill a bookcase or

  • by petes_PoV ( 912422 ) on Thursday January 19, 2017 @09:52AM (#53695673)

    but a lot is going on in the classroom -- there is so much to look at inside it and out the window.

    This is a little worrying, since we are told that a rich classroom environment stimulates the young mind. It almost sounds as if we should go back to the drab, austere, classrooms of past decades. That way the children will have few distractions and will be better able to pay attention to their teacher.

    • by umghhh ( 965931 )
      and use taser!
    • by goose-incarnated ( 1145029 ) on Thursday January 19, 2017 @10:06AM (#53695773) Journal

      but a lot is going on in the classroom -- there is so much to look at inside it and out the window.

      This is a little worrying, since we are told that a rich classroom environment stimulates the young mind. It almost sounds as if we should go back to the drab, austere, classrooms of past decades. That way the children will have few distractions and will be better able to pay attention to their teacher.

      We've always known that distractions are the enemy of learning. The problem is that the most vocal proponents of any idea are themselves vacuous and unable to focus, hence they suggest stupid things like distracting environments and (being the most vocal) manage to get their way.

      I recall a study that found that a touch of OCD contributed immensely to problem solving skills. This is because having just enough OCD to turn things over and over in your head (for days, if need be) allows the person to view all facets of a problem. Being easily distracted means that only superficial thought is put into a problem.

      Solitude is necessary for depth when thinking.

      • A touch of OCD contributes to solving problems that require puzzling over details. A touch of ADD contributes to tracking prey through the underbrush while also noticing the snake to avoid stepping on. Our educational system has standardized on the facets of "civilization" and "technology" in which the OCD side has more potential usefulness, partly because of the self-fulfilling nature that a system tends to reinforce itself and partly because the OCD types are more likely to set up a "system" in the firs
    • Unless you are trying to train them to focus on the important things. In the real world there will be distractions, why not learn to focus while your brain is still young and plastic.
    • by ( 4621901 )

      but a lot is going on in the classroom -- there is so much to look at inside it and out the window.

      This is a little worrying, since we are told that a rich classroom environment stimulates the young mind. It almost sounds as if we should go back to the drab, austere, classrooms of past decades. That way the children will have few distractions and will be better able to pay attention to their teacher.

      This is because learning is also a form of distraction... let's flip that around to make more sense of it. All events including distractions and learning are a type of things humans can focus on. So in short, adding some stuff in the classroom enhance some focus which also enhance other learning. Have you notice that most rich classroom environments have some type of classroom materials? like English class with color letters A-Z? These are distractions, but it is also meant to make the children focus on tho

  • by geekmux ( 1040042 ) on Thursday January 19, 2017 @09:57AM (#53695711)

    Just curious, how did the study account for:

    YOLO

    FOMO

    IDGAF

    All relevant variables driving the average attention span of today.

    “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..."

    You want kids to listen to the teacher? Take the fucking cell phones out of the classroom. It's rather obvious what "window" students are mindlessly staring at all day.

  • Raindancing (Score:3, Insightful)

    by umghhh ( 965931 ) on Thursday January 19, 2017 @10:01AM (#53695737)
    I know because I danced and it rained.
    Funny that this works for most of SW developers I worked with as well as for huge number of MBA drones too. I suspect MBA drones may be faking it in quest to reach a bonus but they are humans too so most probably randomly arrive at what is the connections between cause and effect.
    The worst thing however is that they may be right about choosing the simple way - there is hardly an economic gratification for determining the actual state of reality. For minority there may be a bonus in learning about this study. The majority will be just to distracted to understand and even if they understood this would bring only pain into their lives.
  • The findings could eventually contribute to improved teaching and learning and the treatment of mental and addiction disorders in which people's perspectives are dysfunctional or fractured.

    Translate: who is willing to pay for this? The PR industry.

  • by trevc ( 1471197 ) on Thursday January 19, 2017 @10:53AM (#53696059)
    I have a wife that tells me what is important and what is not.
    • I have a wife that tells me what is important and what is not.

      In a nutshell, that's one way evolution works ( "choosing" what is important) within each generation ;-)

    • by antdude ( 79039 )

      Prove that you have a wife. Anyways, isn't that the same from ALL females like moms? :P

    • If you were talking about a business partner or office manager, nobody would assume you were being facetious. Choosing a partner should include such practical considerations along with the emotional ones. If you have chosen wisely, like an athlete choosing a good agent or a band choosing a good manager, then delegating decision authority may well be your best course of action.
  • ...but I decided not to read it. I'll leave it as an exercise to the reader as to how I relate to the article.
  • One thing to consider is the existence of what SF calls "bullet time", or when time appears to slow.

    This is what it feels like when, in addition to your heart racing, you literally are recording everything you perceive. We get rid of almost everything we see, hear, feel, touch, and taste, but in bullet time, or emergency time, we turn the recorders on full, so that we can analyze how we escaped the dingoes trying to eat us, or the event that might have killed us.

    If we did that all the time, we'd run out of

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