10 Minutes is All we Have


“Attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager. Stay eager.”

[Susan Sontag]

The more attention we pay to something, the longer we retain that information in our brain. How much detail we are able to recall depends on the influence of a select few things. This is important, we want our message to come through and we'd like people to remember it, especially when they're selecting a product, service, or organization.

But before we get to that, how long are we able to pay attention to something before our mind starts wondering? Ten minutes is a good guess. We should watch out for those times when we say, “this ill only take a minute,” or we end up running out of time.

Now if we consider that most formal college lectures are 50 minutes and most presentations are at least 20 to 30 minutes, if not longer, we see why we want to understand what's going on at the ten-minute mark.

The definition of communication is the act of conveying intended meanings from one entity or group to another through the use of mutually understood signs and semiotic rules. There's no interpretation or making sense if the message skips over the head of its intended audience.

Nobody knows what happens in the brain at the 10-minute mark. But if we want to hold attention beyond it, the best solution is to think of it as a process of holding someone's attention for 10 minutes, many times over.

Attention is one of the twelve rules in John Medina's Brain Rules. Medina, who is a developmental molecular biologist and research consultant, says, “We don't pay attention to boring things.” As we we read a paragraph in a book, or listen to a talk, millions of neurons are firing simultaneously in our brain. They all carry messages, and each is vying for our attention. Lucky us, only a few break through!

Our brain is genetically encoded to help us ignore the rest—it's part of our survival DNA—but we can also as easily decide to grant air time to something we were ignoring just a moment ago. We can do it efficiently. Which messages grab our attention? Medina says, they are those “connected to memory, interest, and awareness.”


Different cultures form in different environments—for example, if we grow up in the jungle, we learn to stay away from certain plants, or animal footprints—and we learn to navigate them with exposure and time.

This difference transfers to expectations as well, says Medina:

Science magazine notes that “Asians pay more attention to context and to the relationship between focal (foreground) objects and background in their description of visual scenes, whereas Americans mention the focal items with greater frequency.”

Such differences can affect how an audience perceives a given business presentation or class lecture.


When we're interested in something, we tend to pay more attention to it. For example, once we make our selection of car make and model, we see them everywhere even as the probability of their number in our path having increased is slim. Dog owners tend to see the same breed with higher frequency, and so on.

Can we use attention to create interest? Anyone in marketing work on doing just that, “novel stimuli—the unusual, unpredictable, or distinctive—are powerful ways to harness attention in the service of creating interest.”

Zig when everyone else is zagging.


For us to notice something, we must be aware of it. When we don't see something, we can hardly recall it or know it's there. Vision is the sense we use the most, it's the one that becomes engaged more frequently. But we also use our sense of smell and auditory ability to spot things and our sense of touch and taste to appreciate them.

Says Medina:

We also pay attention to our psychological interiors, mulling over internal events and feeling again and again with complete focus, with no obvious sensory stimulation.

That's how we pay attention.

How does the brain pay attention?

We're still using a theory formulated by physics researcher Michael Posner to understand that. Posner joined Boeing Aircraft Company out of college. His first assignment was to figure out how to reduce jet=engine noise for passengers. It was the beginning of a new fascination with how the brain works.

Medina says he then went to earn a doctorate in research, “and to a powerful idea that's sometimes jokingly referred to as the Trinity Model.” Our brain, the human OS, uses three separate yet integrated networks of neuronal circuitry to pay attention.

The first system works just “like the two-part job of a museum security officer: surveillance and alert.” Posner named it the Alerting and Arousal Network. We scan our environment with our senses to detect things that are unusual. Because it comes from inside of us, this condition goes by the name “intrinsic alertness.” When something triggers it, we pay attention to that specific thing.

Which means we trigger the Orienting Network to get more information about what's going on for the third system. Once we figure that out, the Executive Network comes into play to help us decide what we're going to do about it.

We mirror this process when we strategize—we detect something new and/or different in the environment, we orient toward it by engaging in discovery and assessment, to be able to decide what to do with this new information. Like in Posner's case where the discovery about the brain function and attention opened the field to hundreds of other discoveries about behavioral patterns, so does the strategizing process open the door to (conservatively speaking) dozens of opportunities.

Four with the most potential

Emotions, meaning, multi-tasking, and timing. They're like the Four Musketeers.

Of humble beginnings d'Artagnan was portrayed by portrayed by Alexander Dumas as a hotheaded youth, thus we pair him with emotions. Athos and his mysterious past could be paired with meaning, constantly ambitious and unsatisfied Aramis might impersonate multitasking, and honest and slightly gullible Porthos who is extremely dedicated and loyal toward his friends in the role of timing.


Brain Rules makes for a very enjoyable and super useful reading and tomorrow, we'll talk about a pragmatic example of how emotions get our attention and more on the power of good storytelling.


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