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You Really Don't Know It All

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo

We have two dogs as part of our household. Bunny is a 20-pound rescue whom our daughter, Maggie, found seven years ago. Bunny is quick, excitable, fun and can jump a very long way. She likes getting petted and will jump in your lap if requested -- but not for long. She's the barker in our home. She barks at visitors, squirrels, people walking by and even herself in the mirror. She often doesn't appear to know why she's barking; she just knows she has to bark. We call it "Bunny barking" and tend to ignore it.


Midnight, a black 80-pound Labrador, is the matriarch of the house, with a gray muzzle and a persistent manner. She's loving and attentive and will nudge your hand or your leg until you pet her. Once you begin, it's hard to stop; if you do, she will nudge you again, and again, repeatedly. It's only after a few minutes of failing to elicit a response that she will finally give up and "go lie down." She does not bark unless accidentally stepped on, so when she barks, we pay attention. She ignores a lot, only paying attention to what physically hurts her.

Deciding when, to what and for how long to give our attention to anything in today's world is a real challenge. Many of us wake up, reach for our cellphones and start scrolling through our email or social media before we get out of bed. Before we even leave our bed, we have already allowed someone else -- a client, a boss, a stranger on our Twitter feed -- to decide where we focus our attention. No wonder so many of us feel out of control. We are allowing our attention to wander; we are not in control of what we pay attention to. Often, we react before we slow down and think. We, too, can be Bunny barking -- barking at something, or possibly nothing, but barking nonetheless.

It's challenging for us to determine what, when and how deep to pay attention to something.

This is especially true when we try to learn. The mental process for learning requires knowing when to pay attention and what to pay attention to, and then focusing on and processing the information. This is why a set learning schedule can accelerate the process. The routine of learning helps. For example, knowing when (say, 10 a.m. on weekdays), what (say, English) and how (say, by reading aloud and analyzing a passage), we can create a framework conducive to accelerated learning.


Knowing what to pay attention to also allows us to ignore other information that may be vying for our attention -- stuff that is shiny but not important in our lives. This is hard to shield ourselves from in today's interconnected, internet-of-everything world. For me it helps to turn off potential distractions when attempting to focus, learn and process. This is why my email program is closed when I write. It also helps to have a routine when attempting to tackle certain activities -- maybe coffee shops are your thing, or you work best at a standing desk. Everyone is different, and your preference can change over time. Bunny is not good at this.

Once we know when and to what we want to give our attention, we have to focus on understanding. According to Stanislas Dehaene, a cognitive neuroscientist and author of "How We Learn, "with conscious attention, the discharges of the sensory and conceptual neurons that code for an object are massively amplified and prolonged, and their messages propagate into the prefrontal cortex, where whole populations of neurons ignite and fire for a long time, well beyond the original duration of the image."

During the process of learning new ideas, the brain has to process more. This explains how tired my brain would feel when I transitioned from a financial consulting job to a financial job in the wireless industry. Learning requires real work for our brain.

According to Dehaene, while focusing attention, amplifying the area of interest and filtering out the rest does help with learning a certain subject, it can also result in our "becoming blind to what" we choose "not to see." If we filter it out, how could we see it?


The second problem, which Dehaene says is worse than the first, is that "we are unaware of our own unawareness -- and, therefore, we are absolutely convinced that we have seen all there is to see!"

If we simply begin with the thought that we always have something to learn, we can stop running around Bunny barking at everything.

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