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Evolution and Attention


Explanations > Perception > Attention > Evolution and Attention

Interest | Threat interrupt | Food potential | Social control | So what?


Attention is an important mental process where we apply conscious effort to considering one thing at a time. This makes attention a scarce resource when there are many things to which we can attend. Evolution has made the sustaining and interruption of our attention a process that helps us survive and thrive.


When there are no other reasons for putting attention elsewhere, we widen our field of attention, scanning the environment and place our attention where there seems most potential, for example where we might find food, shelter or a mate.

We may also place our attention internally, attending to our thoughts and musings. When this happens we pay far less attention to what is happening around us.

Threat interrupt

The basic evolutionary requirement is simply to survive, both in the long and, particularly, short term. When we are likely to be prey, then we keep a regular attention scanning the environment for potential threats.

If we are attending to something of interest, our unconscious minds keep a wary eye out for threats, kicking us into action even before we have time to wonder if the event really is a threat. It is a better strategy to treat any unexpected event as a potential threat and rapidly respond as such rather than pausing to evaluate the situation. This evolutionary effect leads to all kinds of stress in our relatively safe modern lives.

Food potential

Just as prey need to manage their attention, so also do predators. Eagles and other birds of prey pay great attention to even the slightest movement as they scan the habitat below them for potential food. People do this when hunting, too, stealthily approaching our prey while attending carefully to being noiseless in our approach.

The hunting attention, like the prey attention, starts wide in a search mode, then focuses in on particular areas. This is in itself a risk as focusing in one area can give another predator opportunity to sneak up from behind.

Social control

We are social beings, living in tribes where the higher up the hierarchy you can get, the greater control you may gain. Control may also be gained by deliberate manipulation.

Using the natural grabbing of attention by threats and 'food' (or other items of interests, such as money) can become a deliberate strategy. The general principle is to create a distraction and then act away from the focus of attention, just like the unseen hunter. In the human world, this is used in all kinds of ways. Magicians and pick-pockets are typical users of this in a 'professional' context. We also use threats to pull attention towards us and to get people to act in search of self-preservation.

So what?

Place your own attention carefully and deliberately when you can, while being ready to react to real threats. Notice how things tend to distract you and be suspicious if the distraction is in a context where threats can appear from other areas and where deception may be a typical tool.

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