Memories, emotions, and the science of paying attention


One of the best childhood memories I have is of visiting the zoo with my dad.

We lived in Lahore, a city of 11.3 million people – and traffic jams to match.

My dad had a small motorbike so family trips were a rare treat.

We stopped to buy some popcorn and started by seeing the big cats. They were loud.

Next, my dad took me to see a giraffe.

I was sitting on his shoulders eating popcorn as we made our way through the crowd.

Then we stopped in front of a large field with a low fence around it. But it was tall for my small frame.

My dad put me down in front of the fence and said, “So what do you think?”

I got a little surprised because, to me, the field looked empty.

So, I looked up at him and asked, “What?”

He replied, “What do you think of the giraffe?”

I said, “What giraffe?”

That’s when he pointed up with his finger and suddenly there it was. A giraffe!

Of course, the giraffe was there the whole time, but I had been staring right through its legs.

We’re unaware of most things.

Most things that we pay attention to, that is.

We wake up every day with a limited allowance of time and effort.

And we spend it with the people we care for the most.

The same is true for our work and hobbies. We show others, and ourselves, what we value by paying attention to them.

That’s why I’m endlessly fascinated by attention.

There are different types of attention.

Iain McGilchrist in his book, “The Master and His Emissary” introduced the 5 different types of attention:

  • Alertness
  • Vigilance
  • Sustained attention
  • Focused attention
  • Divided Attention

Alertness and sustained attention are how we remain aware of the world around us.

Vigilance looks for new details in our environment and ensures that we’re not caught off guard.

Focused attention helps us zone in.

Divided attention is a mix of everything.

McGilchrist also explains that the first three types happen subconsciously.

The subconscious part of our brain processes 11 million bits of information per second.

Eleven million bits per second! If your brain was a city and the information it processes the people, we’d be talking the likes of Lahore or Bangkok.

We’re conscious of what we’re paying attention to only when focused attention is involved.

And it’s only when we focus on something that we become aware of it.

So, how do we pay attention?

The human brain has two hemispheres, the left and the right.

And contrary to pop-science, both hemispheres are involved in all our thoughts and actions.

But the two halves have different priorities and both have specialised to pay attention to different things (McGilchrist, 2009).

Orlando Wood in “Look out” called it attentional preference.

Alertness, vigilance, and sustained attention are processed in the right hemisphere. It pays subconscious attention to the world around us.

The left hemisphere pays conscious attention only to specific things that interest us.

Focused attention is processed in the left hemisphere. Wood named the two types of attention: Broad Beam Attention (right hemisphere) and Narrow Beam Attention (left hemisphere).

The two hemispheres are connected by a bundle of fibres called Corpus Callosum that allows “one hemisphere to inhibit the other at any given time.” (Wood, 2021)

More importantly, Wood explains that “the left hemisphere has a greater inhibitory effect on the right than the right does on the left.”

The right hemisphere is like the town gossip.

It picks out the juiciest titbits and gives them to the left hemisphere to look at.

How does the right hemisphere decide what to focus on?

Wood writes that the right hemisphere “gives us the sense of lived time.” It’s in the right hemisphere where we process:

  • faces,
  • facial expressions,
  • gestures,
  • jokes and sarcasm,
  • truths from lies,
  • humour and metaphor,
  • colour and smell,
  • joy,
  • and empathy.

Our experience of the world around us exists in the right hemisphere.

And as such, it’s more likely to have a preference for “our experience on emotion” (Wood, 2021) and it’s more receptive to what’s happening around us.

It also plays an important role in how we experience emotion. Wood describes how the right hemisphere is more emotionally active and better connected to the Limbic System, the part of the brain where emotions are processed, than the left.

Emotions make life memorable.

Neuroscientists believe that emotions log experiences into our long-term memory and create somatic markers that trigger when the same emotions are triggered.

Events that create an emotional response get preferential treatment from the right hemisphere.

And out of those only some are meaningful enough to get imprinted into our long-term memory.

Events logged into long-term memory create mental shortcuts or heuristics.

Heuristics make future decision-making require less processing by triggering a similar behaviour when we find ourselves in a situation similar to one we’ve been in before.

As Wood writes, the left hemisphere’s view is limited, fixed, and rigid. It prefers what’s already known to it, and it can only ‘say no’ or ‘not say no’ to what is presented to it by the right hemisphere.

That’s why you need to get people to feel first.

Otherwise, they’ll remain oblivious to whatever you have to tell them.

Wood explains that brand building should aim to create three heuristics:

  • Mental Availability (Fame)
  • Fluency
  • Feeling

The best ads are memorable.

Wood writes that a positive emotional response is more likely to form a long-term memory than a negative one. According to him, brands become memorable when their ads “leave people feeling good”.

Recognising a brand, being familiar with it, and feeling good about it means it’s a good choice.

Referring to the data analysed by System1 (an agency that analyses ads), Wood explains that the quantity of advertising is important, but that the creative quality of your advertising goes a great deal further than simply what you spend on it.

Decades of analyses from both Institute for Practitioners of Advertising (IPA) and System1 show that ads which trigger an emotional response also drive better business performance over 2 – 3 years when compared to rational ads.

Things that light up our emotions have a better chance of getting our attention.

After that, it’s a question of keeping it for long enough to get your message through.

Each hemisphere has a different way of seeing the world.

Ads that make your brand more recognisable, and leave people feeling good, sell more year after year.

To make a sale today, make an ad that cuts to the point of what your customer is already thinking about.

About the Author

Hi! I’m Aliyar.

When your marketing investments aren’t driving growth, ping me