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English Detective # 116 Attention: How to Focus on What’s Important
October 16, 2018

#116 Attention: Focus on What’s Important

From new research on barn owls that might help kids with ADHD to the best strategies for paying attention in class (and an experiment banning cell phones during a talk—to avoid distracting everyone there, not just the phone checkers), here’s help when you need to focus. (There’s also a crossword puzzle to practice related vocabulary.)

NPR has a fascinating discussion of research on the way owls pay attention—and how studying their brain circuits may eventually help researchers understand ADHD.

Owls know how to focus— getting enough to eat depends on it! Researchers can tell exactly what an owl is focusing on because it must turn its whole head to look at something. So by monitoring owl brain activity, researchers believe they have found the neurons that help the owls focus (by enabling them to ignore everything else.)

They hope to find similar neurons in mice and then in people. If they do, they can look for problems in that brain area. They might be able to find ways to help people who have trouble ignoring distractions— people with schizophrenia and Parkinson’s disease as well as ADHD.

Does Your Cell Phone Distract You?

That’s not an accident. Smartphones are designed to keep you scrolling for “one more quick check” and then another. Advertisers pay a lot to try to get our attention—and almost every app and feature of our phones is designed to hold onto it. That’s a problem when you have something else you need to focus on, or when you’re trying to listen to someone.

This article discusses an experiment at a TED talk. There had been so many people checking their phones at earlier talks that it was not only unfair to the speaker (!), but also a distraction to the people who were trying to listen. So, the TED organizer notified the audience in advance that no one would be permitted to bring a phone to the talk.

The surprising result was that almost all the participants loved it! Many of them had not liked the idea of leaving their phones, but they enjoyed the talk so much more that they wanted to repeat the experience!

How to Pay Attention

This longer article by Wikihow explains the best methods for paying attention 1) when focusing on a task and 2) when listening to someone. It also has suggestions for ways to increase your ability to focus over time. It offers practical solutions to common distractions. As it points out, focus is a skill you can learn. “You can train your brain to stay aware”—and the benefits are well worth the effort.

For Students: How to Prepare so You Can Focus in Class

Finally, if you are a university student needing more help to pay attention to difficult lectures, there’s an even longer but helpful article specifically on preparing to concentrate in class. It offers detailed preparation strategies, including close study of your textbook beforehand, notetaking suggestions, and other ways to be prepared to focus intently during the lecture.

Vocabulary Practice: Attention

A quick note: in English the verb for directing your attention is to ‘pay attention to’ someone or something. Its meaning is similar to ‘focus’ as a verb. We don’t say ‘put attention’ and rarely say ‘give attention,’ although you can ‘turn your attention to (or toward)’ something, or ‘focus your attention on’ it.

It’s important to use these exact expressions (collocations). If you use other verbs (or prepositions), it will sound strange to English speakers.

You can practice the main vocabulary in these articles with a crossword puzzle on attention.

Its answers are here.

The next issue will talk about some lesser-known Thanksgiving history, including the reasons why Lincoln first declared it a national holiday.


Catherine Simonton,

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