Brainmatters | Cruise control


Our car has no cruise control. I miss it. Terribly. For of course I want to be at my destination as soon as possible, but I don’t want to find such a hated purple-and-white envelope on my doorstep every couple of weeks. Which means there is a sweet spot where the speedometer gauge would ideally be hovering throughout the route. However, I don’t seem to be able to keep that stupid gauge between those two narrow lines. That is, no longer than for some three minutes. Then my thoughts digress to other matters, other days, other places - as does my speedometer.

In specialist terms we are talking about a vigilance task here: staying focused on a task that is not intrinsically stimulating. Research has shown that vigilance is extremely vulnerable and short-lived - with an order of magnitude of merely a few minutes.

While I was in this reverie, the problem took me back to my own student days. Let’s get it off my chest straight away: I hardly ever attended lectures. Even then it was a struggle to keep my attention focused on one point. I could not manage it for most of the courses, so in the end I stayed away. There were two exceptions: the lectures presented by Esmeijer and Schlösser. The first one, emeritus, crooked and bald, would wave his pointer as if conjuring us as soon as we landed at a crucial point in the finite elements method -‘Heaven forbid!’. The second one, maybe a decade younger, grey wavy hair down to his shoulders, while calculating would sketch broad vistas on the board when losing himself in physical transport phenomena. They managed to drag me along through the 45 long minutes between the buzzer and the bell.

Attention is a continuous power play

Attention is a fascinating phenomenon, a continuous power play between processes driven top-down and bottom-up. This is how intention and effort contend with numerous stimuli, thoughts and events for that precious bit of attention that we can divide. Without a UTQ or course in theater skills these men managed to win that play for me with a captivating mixture of sound, image and emotions.

Even for a passionate student, listening to fascinating stories larded with concrete examples, a light-hearted witticism and activating components, mustering 45 minutes of attention is a tall order. In the light of our increasing timetable problems, efforts are made to come up with new forms of timetables, including variants of 90 minutes of lectures without a break. Even though theoretically speaking you do not lose any valuable lecture time, I would still like to urge all the lecturers to allow their students - and themselves - some interim recovery time. Attention is volatile and our brain has no cruise control.

Yvonne de Kort is Professor of Environmental Psychology at Human-Technology Interaction

Share this article