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Find Out Why Your Attention Is Like A Garden

By Julia Mossbridge, MA, Ph.D., “Dr. Julia”
Science Director, Focus@Will Labs

Note: This is the first of a four-part series on what I call the “attention garden.” The goal of this series is to help you become aware of, hone, and harness the power of your attention. I explain the metaphor and the scientific background (part one), help you choose what to plant (part two), examine tools for tending your garden (part three), and discuss the importance of harvest time (part four).

Lately, I’ve been thinking of attention as a garden. The more I think on it and talk with people about this idea, the more I see the metaphor as a valuable tool. Hear me out.

Think of attention as a space in your mind, like a walled garden – you can’t look outside the walls – you can only pay attention to what’s inside them. There are also special tools to tend to your attention, and these tools are simple. While there are a few common pitfalls to avoid, basically you plant something in your attention and it grows.

Let me explain the science behind this metaphor by using an example. Let’s say you want to learn a new language — you speak English, but you want to learn Mandarin. It may seem obvious that you have to pay attention to Mandarin in order to learn it, but this actually had to be shown scientifically, because researchers knew that children are able to learn languages without explicitly being taught the words. Further, there were some theories floating around that language could be learned during sleep, without attention. Later on, it was found that children were in fact attending to the words spoken by their friends and families, and that language learning during sleep (without any attention during waking) did not work.

the-world-of-beatrixBut even though attention-free language learning had been disproven, the idea that attention improves learning of a second language has only been shown recently. The field started off in the 1990s with what is called the “Noticing Hypothesis,” put forward by Richard Schmidt (for review, see Ahn, 2014). This hypothesis basically stated, and I am not making this up, “you have to notice things in order to learn them.” Okay, putting aside jokes about how research psychologists are lacking in common sense, this turned out to be an important hypothesis, and it needed testing.

The situation is more complicated than it sounds, because in general, there are two types of attention: externally-driven attention and internally-driven attention (also called exogenous and endogenous attention, respectively; [for review: Chun, Golomb, & Turk-Browne, 2011]). Externally-driven attention is just like you’d guess– it is driven by things outside yourself. Examples: There’s a moving image on the TV in the corner of a bar, and your eyes are drawn to it; a phone rings and you become focused on trying to find the source of the sound. Internally-driven attention is also easy to understand – it is driven by your own current attentional state and your motivations. Examples: You know you have to finish a project by 3pm, so your focus is on the project; you are driving and you are about to try to merge into tricky traffic, so your attention is on the cars around you and your own speed.

The complicated thing is that these two types of attention are reasonably independent. In other words, you can change externally-driven attention without changing internally-driven attention, and vice versa. So in order to show that attention improves learning, scientists have had to ask whether both kinds of attention improve learning, or if one or the other improves learning alone. They also had to figure out how to measure attention. Luckily, recent advances in biological sensing have made devices that track eye movements more affordable for research labs, so at least visual attention can be measured relatively easily now.

So – to cut to the findings – researchers tested the “noticing hypothesis” – and voila! It turns out that the more people look at particular words, the more they learn them. It doesn’t matter whether the experimenters used externally-driven attention tricks like highlighting words on the screen or internally-driven attention tricks like priming people to think about particular aspects of sentences. Learning improved with both types of attentional tricks (Issa paper). The Noticing Hypothesis was correct, regardless of whether internally-driven or externally-driven attentional processes did the noticing.

Seen another way, it’s like this. No matter the tools we use to notice something, whatever we notice ends up changing our thinking in a way that things we do not notice do not. Put another way, what we plant in the garden of attention (in this case, words of a second language), grow (in this case, we get better at the language). So what if we want to get better at something else?

What grows in the garden of attention? Not just second languages. That was an example, but the metaphor works for everything: relationships, musical skills, leadership capacities…what grows is what you plant, and what grows even more is what you nurture in and harvest from your attention garden. Stay tuned for part two of this series, when I’ll get into how to choose what to plant – and what NOT to plant, which is equally important.


Note: This blog post was written under the attentional-enhancing influence of Focus@Will “Focus Spa” channel, one of the many channels with neuroscientifically inspired focusing music available on Focus@Will.


About Julia Mossbridge:

I am a parent of a 16-year old composer and a partner to a wonderful human being. I give talks about work engagement, authenticity, and aliveness. I am working on changing the culture of Silicon Valley to move it toward a greater appreciation of the gifts of being human (by the way, email me at if you’d like to apply to attend a small, invitation-only Silicon Valley lecture on authenticity and aliveness on May 11th). I am the author of Unfolding: The Science of Your Soul’s Work, and my upcoming book co-authored with Imants Baruss, Transcendent Mind: Re-thinking the Science of Consciousness, will be released by the American Psychological Association in August 2016. I am also the Science Director at Focus@Will Labs, Director of the Innovation Lab and a Staff Scientist at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, and a Visiting Scholar in Psychology at Northwestern University.



Ahn, J. I. (2014). Attention, Awareness, and Noticing in SLA: A Methodological Review. MSU Working Papers in Second Language Studies, 5(1).

Chun, M. M., Golomb, J. D., & Turk-Browne, N. B. (2011). A taxonomy of external and internal attention. Annual review of psychology, 62, 73-101.

Issa, B., Morgan-Short, K., Villegas, B., & Raney, G. (2015). An eye-tracking study on the role of attention and its relationship with motivation. EUROSLA Yearbook, 15(1), 114-142.



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