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Curiouser and curiouser: How attention and distraction affect our learning

By Catherine Molloy

We’re easily distracted because we’re inherently curious. And that curiosity is an essential drive to help us learn. But how do we overcome distractions when we want to get someone to focus on our message? Catherine Molloy explores the rabbit holes...

You are a brilliant learner. Fact.

I say this with conviction, even though I don’t know you. How can I be so sure? Well, because all humans have a natural tendency to learn.

It’s something we do from the moment we’re born to our last days[1]. It’s what has enabled our species to evolve and thrive.

As psychologist Professor Elsbeth Stern explains:

“The transition from using stone wedges for hunting to inventing wheels, cars, and iPhones within a time period of a few thousand years is a testament to the unique mental flexibility of human beings given that, to the best of our knowledge, the genes that guide human brain development have not undergone remarkable changes during the last 50,000 years.”[2]

Something else I know about you? You’re really easily distracted.

I am too. It’s another human trait. And while teachers may have tried to drum it out of you in school, we should, perhaps, be celebrating our distracted minds instead.

We’re easily distracted because we’re inherently curious.

“Evolution made us the ultimate learning machines,” says Tom Stafford, senior lecturer in psychology and cognitive science at the University of Sheffield, “and the ultimate learning machines need a healthy dash of curiosity to help us take full advantage of this learning capacity.”[3]

A world without curiosity?

Studies in Artificial Intelligence give an insight into a world devoid of curiosity. As Stafford explains: “Even the best learning algorithms fall down if they are not encouraged to explore a little. Without a little something to distract them from what they should be doing, they get stuck in a rut, relying on the same responses time and time again.”[4].

Your curiosity is ‘a motivator for learning, influential in decision-making, and crucial for healthy development’[5]. Without it, you become stuck.

How does curiosity help us learn?

Curiosity seems to impel us like other drive states, such as hunger, which motivates eating.

It drives us to find out more. As Professor George Loewenstein described it[6], curiosity arises “from the perception of a gap in knowledge and understanding.”

Our curiosity is piqued when we’re faced with incomplete information or there’s a gap in our understanding. Our brains like to have complete, comprehensible, tied-off packages of information, and curiosity motivates us to fill in any gaps.

For the same reasons, curiosity is fired-up when we encounter something that goes against our expectations of how things should be. Something that surprises us.

Curiosity also influences memory. In one study, “participants showed improved memory for information they were curious about, and for incidental material learned during states of high curiosity”.[7]

Beware the curiosity rabbit hole!

So curiosity really does seem like it’s our learning superpower, eh? Well, not quite.

Curiosity is not always mindful of your goals. It’s fickle. It likes shiny new things. That dull report you have to read, it’ll still be there after you just check the latest news, and then see if your friend has responded to your message, and then…

While curiosity-driven exploration helps us learn, it also leads us into unproductive behaviour that can hinder us. Dr Gloria Mark explains: “The average person succumbs to distractions every three minutes, it can be difficult to escape from them. Once you are captured by a distraction, it can take up to 23 minutes to get back on track.”[8]

Curiosity, it would appear, is a double-edged sword. Despite the long-term evolutionary benefits of staying curious, succumbing to distractions derails us from completing tasks. And today’s world offers increasing opportunities for distraction, with our phones, email, social media just a tap away.

The state of ‘flow’

At the opposite end of the attention scale, is ‘flow’. This is the mental state named by philosopher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in which “people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter, not even time, hunger or fatigue.”[9]

During ‘flow’, concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems.

Wouldn’t ‘flow’ be the holy grail for any learning and development teams to achieve with learners? An unlikely outcome, perhaps? But what if we can capture just a little of that focused attention?

Build a bonfire of attention

The problem with ‘flow’ is that it's elusive. Why do some activities leave us open to distraction, and yet for others, even difficult ones, we can block out distractions and completely focus our attention on the task in hand?

In his book, Captivology, Ben Parr describes building a ‘bonfire of attention’ with three distinct stages. The first stage – ignition – is where you capture immediate attention. This is the spark needed to light the fire.

In the second stage – kindling – you’re trying to attract short-term attention, getting your audience to focus on a particular idea or event. The information is held in our short-term memory, but can be easily lost.

The third stage – the bonfire – is crucial for keeping our long-term attention alight. Our interest is held for longer in an idea, message, cause, etc. Deep and undivided attention leads to long term memory transfer. As Parr puts it, “their attention is roaring into a bonfire that lasts.”


A bonfire needs a spark and kindling to get it started.

Get noticed!

This ‘bonfire’ model is useful because it acknowledges the different stages of memory involved in achieving sustained attention, and the importance of the often-overlooked first stage – securing immediate attention.

This first step in the attention bonfire relies on standing out in order to get noticed. A start-up company with a brilliant product won’t attract potential investors if it isn’t noticed in the crowd of other start-ups. Similarly, a new e-learning course that looks and sounds exactly like all the other courses an employee has already completed, will be reassuringly familiar, but it probably won’t create the spark needed to ignite their attention, arouse their curiosity and, in doing so, prime their brain for learning.

Immediate attention is the simplest type of attention to capture, because humans can’t control our automatic reactions. Yet we often fail to take advantage of how it can help us get our messages through to others.

Doing something unexpected is often considered too risky, not in keeping with the culture, or just plain gimmicky.

Let’s look at three examples that I hope will show you otherwise.

  1. Fascinating faeces: A group of Swiss epidemiologists researching parasitic infections in human stools, discovered some tricks for making more accurate diagnoses. They wanted to share these widely, reaching health practitioners working in communities where such infections were a serious problem. But they knew that publishing the results in an academic journal would only gain the attention of a small, specialised group of tropical medicine scientists. With limited resources, they had to get creative to capture immediate attention. Their provocative and unconventional paper title: “An In-Depth Analysis of a Piece of Sh*t” did the trick. It was startling and surprising enough to get published in four widely read publications, helping them reach a much wider audience. It bucked conventional expectations, using humour to generate an instant emotional connection. They changed what they could, within the constraints available to them.
  1. Henry’s boobs: What do you do if you’re a breast cancer charity wanting to produce a video to demonstrate breast cancer self-examination, but social media censorship rules prevent you from showing women’s breasts, particularly nipples? This was the challenge facing Argentinian breast cancer charity, MACMA. Undeterred, and armed with lateral thinking, they found boobs that weren’t censored – Henry’s. Within the first week, Henry, and his ‘manboobs’ had 48M views, over 700,000 shares, created a worldwide debate on social media censorship policies, and helped raise awareness of both female and male breast cancer. Quite a result by taking an unexpected approach.[10]
  1. That’s a rap: Acteon’s client Co-op, needed to roll out asbestos safety training across all retail and Funeralcare sites. Recognising that an asbestos awareness course might not naturally grab people’s attention, together we decided to give their important safety messages a helping hand by trying something unexpected. The resulting animated music video-style digital learning module, featuring a bespoke MC Hammer ‘Don’t touch this!’ parody song, was an instant hit and resulted in a dramatic 90 percent reduction in calls to the helpdesk – because staff were equipped with the knowledge they needed, and they could recall it at the right moment.
What can we take away from this?

Doing something different or unexpected ignites immediate attention, and primes our natural curiosity, making our brains more receptive to finding out more. It can be a powerful stepping-stone to your audience consciously engaging their short and long-term attention.

Novel approaches also create opportunities for sharing and discussion that can help spread your messages more widely, enhance their impact and consolidate them in long term memory.

Obviously, not everything can be ‘different’ – the aim here, is to create something that stands out above the baseline – so choose carefully where to use this approach. Focus on topics which you know might not naturally generate much attention from your audience, even though the information is vital.

Use the unexpected to ignite the bonfire of attention in their minds.

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