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More details on his book ‘How attention works’

Experience Designers Ep 7

(I use a mix of automated transcript software and editing for readability )

Steve 0:02

Hi, my name is Steve Usher and welcome to the experience designers podcast.

Steve 0:10

Hello, everyone, and welcome to a brand new episode of the experience designers. So this episode is part two of a series of podcasts recorded live at the design thinking conference in Amsterdam. And I got the opportunity to chat with Stefan Van Der Stigchel, who had the daunting task of being the first speaker at the event. But I have to say absolutely wowed the audience was some amazing examples of how our brain works and constantly tricks us. And Stefan, in terms of his professional background, is an associate professor at Utrecht University and head of the research group attention lab. And the group's main aim is to study how attention and visual awareness shape the perception of the world around us. So this is a really super interesting subject, when considering the lens in which we view situations, or take an empathetic view or not shall we say is skewed and majority of time is wrong. So super interesting topic. And one of which I think were we all learn something, and I hope in which you're all learn something to from this interview. So enjoy the show. And thanks very much for listening.

Stefan 1:13

Okay, so I am here with Stefan, who was one of the actors or keynote speakers from yesterday. So I was I'm really excited to have you on the podcast because it was such a, it was a really well, I think it's well organized in the sense that having you up first was a really good opener. And yeah, I just thought the card trick was brilliant. So we'll discuss that. It was a good way to get people people into the room. So it's brilliant, just for the audience. So just a bit of an intro and a little bit about yourself and your background.

Stefan 1:58

Given that this will be published after November 1. I'm a full professor in ex mental psychology, just waiting for two more weeks to wait for the letter to come in. And I work at Utrecht University.

Stefan 2:17

Ex mental psychologists, meaning I study how we behave and how we see what we see. So I studied attention visual attention most dominantly. So our eyes are bombarded with visual information. And we only select part of that information. This is a process called called attention. And that's what I studied.

Steve 2:29

Yeah, excellent. And can I just ask what what got you into this study and into this specialist area I guess,

Stefan 2:37

I think I was always interested in how the brain works. And I got into a project and eye movements because eye movements are really cool to measure them with eye trackers. And after a while, I started to realize what's the functional movements actually and then I got it to the question of visual perception and then into attention.

Stefan 2:53

So it came from a like motor behavior, like movements, eye movements thought was interesting, but i think the functional movements are even more interesting than then it's then the movement itself.

Steve 3:04

Yes, indeed. And so just give us a bit of an overview of your message that you gave to the design thinking group yesterday, you know, when you construct it that, that amazing keynote, kind of what you know, why you put those components in and what we're trying to get across.

Stefan 3:19

So to focus on this conference is about empathy, right. And my take on it is that I would like to convince people that everyone in the world perceives the world's differently. We all have associations, we all have learned lessons previously. And we know that attention is highly influenced by our biases. So everyone sees the world differently, which means that you cannot simply assume that what you feel and what you see, is the same as someone else feels and sees. And what I've been trying to do is be giving some examples of I've literally tried to give the room different view. So I've used these visual illusions. And as we know, if you prime people to think that they will see something, they will see what they expect to see. And it holds for everything right? When you're looking for your red book, you only see red objects. When you're at a party. And you think someone's really interesting, you notice we're seeing this person wearing a blue shirt, everyone that's has wearing something blue will capture your attention. So it's very much depends on the time of the day and what you're thinking about, that will influence what you will get from the world around you. And it's different for everyone. So that's important to know those are reflexes, if you think about blue, then everything that's blue will catch your attention automatically. Which means that everyone is captured by different things when they are in a room and talking to people. And I think that's important to understand. If you really want to understand the other person, you have to realize that this person might not be seeing the same thing as you are.

Steve 4:48

And that's kind of the first step isn't just that, that having that awareness that okay, not everybody sees the world in the way I'll do

Stefan 4:55

You can design something that you cannot assume that the way you see it will also be how other people will see your design.

Steve 5:01

Absolutely. And just something you talked about, which is around the spotlight. Yeah, which I thought was really interesting. So just just explain a little bit about that.

Stefan 5:08

So attention, like the best analogy for visual attention is as it as in terms of a spotlight. And why because the spotlight trails around in space, just like our attention, you can increase the size of a spotlight just as our attention when we're reading your spot light is really small. But when you have overview your spot that is really large, and everything that's not in the spotlight will be ignored. And that's the same thing with attention, everything you don't attend to will simply be ignored. That means that in every moment in time, only very limited amount of information is actually processed up to a level that you can identify it. And the majority information simply ignored.

Steve 5:43

Yes. And does that make it? I mean, doesn't it make it very difficult to get people's attention these days? You have to be so precise in your message or your visual what you're trying to get through to somebody, you must, you know, the science behind that must be must be fascinating.

Stefan 6:01

It's fascinating to see. One of the things that's that's very fascinating to see us is these reflexes, your retention is partly captured by inflammation, the outside world, of course, like if somebody enters its room, you want to you want your attentional spotlight to go to that location, which means that your attention can only go to one place at a time. And what's interesting in that perspective is that everyone is trying to capture your attention, right? But you also have control over your attention. It's a lot of the times you don't want to be distracted. So there's this continuous battle between information the outside world that's competing for your attention, and your own task and your own intentions with you want to do, because attention can only go to one place at a time. So somebody has to win. And sometimes the outside world wins. And sometimes you win. And sometimes what happens in the outside world is not congruent with what with what you want to do. And then there's a conflict.

Steve 6:58

And there's a lot of distractions out there. Well, there are Yeah, we're just bombarded these days.

Stefan 7:03

I think concentration is becoming more and more difficult than ever, simply the amount of information is increasing. But attention is also the solution, right? Because not all the information that's presented to you will be processed. So it's just a matter of focusing on the right things, and ignoring everything else in the end attention is a filter. And there's not going more information through the filter. That hasn't changed. But it does require us to focus on the important things and ignore the irrelevant stuff.

Steve 7:32

Interesting. So how do we train ourselves? How do we, I mean, awareness is something we talked about briefly earlier.

Stefan 7:43

Being aware that those reflexes are there. And you can train your concentration by doing it. And so I've been reading a lot into the concentration literature. And one of the things we know from that concentration is like a muscle, you have to practice, if you're multitasking all the time, meaning that you're doing two things, trying to do two things at the same time that need attention, you will lose the ability to concentrate for a while. So this means that you would have to create your environment such that you're not distracted. That you don't allow yourself to be distracted. But a good sleep and meditation, those are simple things. And those might sound like open doors, but there's actually scientific evidence that those things help in focusing and trying to get your concentration.

Steve 8:22

Yeah, amazing,

Steve 8:22

So, let's connect it back in with empathy, and the design process. So what's your thoughts? What's your take on this.

Stefan 8:35

We talked a bit about I think it's important to to add there That it's important to realize that the reflexes are not going to go away. If you think about blue, blue, things will catch your attention. Which means that these reflexes are there in order for you to survive, in order to find stuff, in order to sort of be safe. But it's important to realize that those are reflexes, and that there is this other processes, which is a lot slower. But that allows you to think about those reactions and those reflexes. So you cannot you cannot change reflexes. And I think the media we just had before we talked about traffic, right? Yeah, your first reaction might not be the reaction you want to give but there's nothing you could do about it. It's reflex. So if you get angry if somebody hits you on your bike, but it's important to realize that it's reflex and if you think about it little bit longer. You can get away of the bias that you might have. So what I'm trying to claim here is that your first initial thought of someone is a bias, everyone's biased. What's important to realize that that's a bias that if you take a little bit more time cognition comes in. And you can change your interpretation of someone of a situation. And that's the awareness, I think is necessary to be in a room. Where there's empathy.

Steve 9:50

So, I'm thinking this is a curve. So this initial peek?

Stefan 9:55


Steve 9:56

So would you say then where it drops down, what variables you think impact the severity of that, that curve, so that where we talked about that initial response, or initial emotion, whatever might come out of it, and then step back and reflect and then reframe or reevaluate? Do you think there's some variables in there and what that might be?

Stefan 10:20

I think the sort of the impact of the events is, of course, is very influential. But also I think it all comes down to concentration again, so meaning that sort of, I think these things are really difficult when you when you are tired, or when you've been multitasking the whole day. And you have high stress levels. So also there, it's important that some of the decisions you might make, while stressed, or some of the decision while you make while tired might not be the right decisions, simply because they're based on these biases, and based on these reflexes, so that's important to understand that when you need to take decision be mentally sane, be healthy, be at a moment where you're able, where you think you're able to make decisions, and take a second thought, take a take a break. Yeah, like there's a lot of literature on taking breaks and not concentrating for a while. And then concentrating again. What I tend to do in my own field is I when when I think of something, I leave it aside and take a break, go out for a walk, and then look at it again from a different angle. So when I want to send an email that's going to have high impact, don't send it immediately. Right, you because you know that those might be you caught in the moment there.

Steve 11:36


Stefan 11:37

And it might be based based on a bias. And just taking a break allows you to take an alternative view.

Steve 11:43

Yeah. And would you say? I mean, is that kind of emotionally driven? So is that more of like you're thinking about? Okay, what was my emotional state right now is that a is that a component of it.

Stefan 11:53

Yes its part emotional, definitely. But it's also you just might be caught in a moment where you're not creative, or where you have to look at things differently. And this could be very highly influenced by emotion. But I think it's even irrespective of emotion, right? If you think of a solution, that might not be the optimal solution. And taking a break allows your brain to sort of get your concentration up again, and think about things very differently. So even when you're not emotional, it's a good idea to see whether decision you made is not influenced by biases.

Steve 12:25

That's really interesting. Empathy is obviously a huge thing on this conference today. What do we need to do to evolve ourselves around empathy. In your mind, what do you think we need to be doing more of, to, to, you know, we talked about in the muscles and practice, what do we need to be doing?

Stefan 12:48

I think what we need to be doing is accepting how the brain works. So I think that's the reason why I'm here. I'm not claiming I know how the brain works, but I'm claiming it on a little bit about you. So and I know about biases and about reflexes. And I think that's also the reason why sometimes write a book or an article is explaining to the people to people outside of academia, that these are lessons you should take seriously. And that empathy is something that might go automatically to my seen was something that happens automatically, but there's really this meta view. And that takes time. And knowing what defect your brain might have, or what shortcuts your brain might take can really help you. So I can advise everyone to keep up with literature a little bit. And try to understand how the brain works. If you want to really feel empathy, if you want to be empathetic, it means that you have to understand how the other person works, but also how you work.

Steve 13:43

Can we get scientific now?!

Stefan 13:46

Yes! Let's get scientific.

Steve 13:48

Because I'm going to relate it back to this in just a second. So there's a very famous example of black cab drivers in London. So obviously, they have to do the knowledge and learn thousands of streets and over I think it's a three year four year period. But there was some research done where there was a component or part of their brain that was you know it because it's a muscle was like three times the size. And then once they retired, it shrunk back down. So empathy. And where does this sit in the brain? Is it a muscle that can be developed? And like a black cabs memory?

Stefan 14:24

Yeah, no, it's good question. So I think there are some of these things like a concept as awareness that doesn't have one function in the brain. So for instance, like awareness and empathy, your ego, I'm pulling until one pile now, like it's not the non concentration. So we had a whole talk yesterday, which was very interesting whole discussion. If you're really focused, there is no empathy, right? empathy is really something that requires some reflection on yourself. So I would like to link it to the default network. And a default network is a brain network that's active when you're not doing anything highly focused. And so that's a whole brain network. And the idea about how the default network is that when you're concentrating, you're continuously suppressing the default network. That's why concentration so difficult, the moment you lose concentration, that you go mind wandering again, and your default network becomes becomes active. So if you think about non focus state about reflections about creating your ideas, the default network becomes active. And the default that works, I don't think you need to do anything in order to get that active in order to train that, it's always there. I think it's very difficult to not be mindful. And concentration is difficult, right? So I think there's not something you need to embrace that something you need to train, I think it's there I think it's easy to understand how it works. But I think it's very different from the cab driver example that you gave that's a that's a cognitive function. I don't think empathy is a cognitive, empathy is almost like a personality trait. Yeah. And that's something you can think about and something you can consider.

Steve 15:54

It was interesting. I was talking to a lady just a minute ago, and she felt that she could distinguish between or one of her biggest learnings actually, from this conference was compassion and empathy. And she realized, actually, I'm really good at empathy. Whereas I know others have actually said, I need to work on empathy. And I need to so it was just, I just want to get into Okay, so how could we develop that actually is it is it being in a state of non concentration, and being relaxed and exploratory kind of surroundings where, because empathy is all about understanding and know that lots of questioning with the participant to get more out and understand their way of thinking or what they're passionate about, etc. So it's just, you know, I just to have an angle on that to see if you have something there?

Stefan 16:40

Well, I think everyone it's really good to important to take your time. And if you want to be better in empathy, that requires a lot of thinking about yourself, and that requires taking the default network being active, because that's when you get to reflect about yourself, that's when you get to reflect in your life and your future decisions. And this is something I'm afraid we don't do that much these days. Because the moment rather concentrated we take our phones. And this doesn't require us to take time in order to think about ourselves and reflect on ourselves. And it's one of the things why did the full network is an important state to be in. Because it It allows you to reflect on your actions. So my scientific advice would be is to do nothing. Once a while. Take a break. And don't be focused and don't watch your phone. And just think about. A mind wandering mind might not be unhappy mind, but it's definitely helpful. State to be in, there's a science paper called, "wondering minds and unhappy minds" that if we all get connected at like, when your mind wandering, it's not always happy thoughts you get to know. But it is important to think about how you relate to the world around you and how you relate to people around you.

Steve 17:52

Yeah, it's true. I mean, it's all the talk right now, isn't it? We're on this constantly connected, I do agree, I think having that period of just either period of reflection, or some kind of meditation does help. Yeah, it does have value.

Stefan 18:06

And there is scientific evidence. I think we have state scientific in the last couple of minutes. Really, there is a lot of evidence.

Steve Usher 18:11

Amazing. And so just tell me a little bit about, you've got a book coming out.

Stefan 18:16

I've got a book up and out. So yeah, it's exciting so I wrote a book in Dutch two and half years ago. And now it's going to be published, I think, in January with MIT is a relatively slow in this process. Unfortunately, I'm a little bit eager to get it out there. And so that's explaining our visual attention works. And so it's a translation from a Dutch book, it has done well in the Netherlands, so we have convinced them to get an international release. And it's explaining how the attentional spotlight works, and how you can direct someone's attention and how you can direct your own attention, how that works. There's a chapter about eye movements. And there's a chapter about the influence of context on where your attention goes. And two weeks from now, there's a book coming out on concentration. And I'm hoping that will also be published in a year or two years internationally. So the first book is coming out in America. And it's about how you can direct your attention. Second one is how you can keep your attention or you can keep concentrated.

Steve Usher 19:15

And I can I just ask delve into that a little bit. So where do you see the future in this, in concentration and attention grabbing, because everybody wants to grab your attention.

Stefan 19:27

I think on the same side, that the knowledge about how concentration works in the brain is also increasing. So if we learned from these lessons, then we can sort of fight that. So I think there is this movement now starting very slowly, but people like the phones only been here for 20 years, right? So it's just something we have to get used to, we have to find a spot in our lives and how to deal with that and you can see a changing. You can see conversations like this. People reading books about digital detoxing. I think we are realizing that there's something we need to change here. And nothing is lost, like evolution is not so quick that we now all of a sudden have brains that cannot concentrate anymore. And I think we are more creative than ever. So I'm don't know worry about our creativity or concentration. But I do think that we're not using our brain optimally. So we're multitasking a lot. We're using our mobile phones, we want to be engaged with social media all the time. And i think if we want to reevaluate our concentration. And we appreciate our attention. That's a movement that slowly starting. And a couple of years from now, we might look back at this time saying what were we thinking? Why we're so hooked up with all this social media. And I think, well, you see these movements coming up that people are already sort of taking, get appreciating being offline, we have to go through a society where it's not normal to reply within a minute, because it means that you're not concentrating. If your employee is responding within a minute. You can ask him, why are you responding in a minute, why aren't you working? And we used to think about someone response really quickly as someone who's really reliable, but someone who responds really quickly is not someone who's concentrated.

Steve 21:05


Stefan 21:10

So really appreciate concentration, where have you been all day? I've been concentrating? Have you seen my message? No, I haven't seen we're doing very important stuff.

Steve 21:20

So it's interesting, because you're seeing lots of things pop up now around getting back to nature. And also at these kind of digital detox is in hotels in the middle of nowhere in Finland. And so there is I mean, I guess there's always a balance that you know, that nature has this way of kind of balancing out, I think, Arne shared that in previous podcast. So I think that's just our way of trying to find some balance in this in in creating these types of things.

Stefan 21:44

I think we just allow ourselves these years and you see people already trying to think about it, that setup we're doing right now. Right? I think a lot of people are doing that.

Steve 21:54

Yes agree. Brilliant. Well, Stefan, thank you so much. Appreciate your time for this podcast today. And I wish you all the very best for your books as well. I'll be I'll be buying. So I'm really I'm interested in the concentration. I think that's really fascinating. Yeah, so I will be diving into that for sure. Thank you.

Stefan 22:13

You're welcome

Steve 22:17

Wow! And there we have it another episode of the experience designers podcast. So thank you so much to my guests, Stefan. Absolute pleasure. And of course, to all of the team at the design thinking conference. And I hope you know something is a real interesting topic, and one of which I think we could all take something from and learn for sure. I will, of course share Stefans link as well as obviously details of his book as well. So if you like what you hear, please rate share, rank, comment, do whatever is necessary. Just to help kind of amplify the experience designers podcast, I'm really pleased to say we're now up to 27 countries and growing fast so I'm really pleased with how it's going. And yeah, long may that continue. But thanks ever so much for listening and bye for now.