Cognition Focus - Architectural detail Valencia

Published on October 31st, 2014 | by Rahel Bailie

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Focus and the Cocktail Party Effect

Learning about how we filter extraneous information helps us understand how we focus on relevant information. It’s important to remember, however, that relevance is not decided by the information provider, but the information consumer.

“Cocktail party problem explained: how the brain filters out unwanted voices

Writing in the Neuron journal, experts from Columbia University explained that brain waves are shaped in a way that allows us to focus on selected sound patterns while ignoring similar ones around us.

Now scientists claim to have identified the “cocktail party” effect. They showing that people’s brains filter out background voices to focus on the person they are trying to listen to. It explains why call out to someone over the ambient noise and conversation of other party guests is not particularly effective. The person is filtering in order to focus.

Similarly, we know from the user experience research that viewers view web interfaces in particular patterns when they look for information. They are focusing on specific areas where they expect to find the information they need at a particular time: navigational information, headings that indicate what a block of content is about, and then the content itself.

The Two Brain Systems that Control Our Attention: The Science of Gaining Focus

The author of this article refers to a couple of interesting texts to explain how two complementary thinking systems – one is the automatic system, the other is the reflective system – work together to help us function. Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow elaborates on how the reflective system supervises the automatic system to keep it on track.

Daniel Goleman’s book, Focus: The Hidden Power of Excellence, addresses the conundrum of distractions, and how to overcome them to keep our focus.

The science behind concentration and improved focus

While losing focus is not a bad thing on its own – our brains need a break from time to time as a natural way to recharge – having our concentration broken by outside factors can set us back in our productivity. And multitaskers are less likely to be able to ignore irrelevant cues. While some people train themselves to stay focus and ignore extraneous cues, we have to design for the consumers who don’t necessarily have the best focus.


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About the Author

Rahel Anne Bailie is a synthesizer of content strategy, requirements analysis, information architecture, and content management to increase the ROI of content. She has consulted for clients in a range of industries, and on several continents, whose aim is to better leverage their content as business assets. Founder of Intentional Design, she is now the Chief Knowledge Officer of London-based Scroll. She is a Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication, she has worked in the content business for over two decades. She is co-author of Content Strategy: Connecting the dots between business, brand, and benefits, and co-editor of The Language of Content Strategy, and is working on her third content strategy book,



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