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Look right here, folks! Psychologist points out what catches your eye, fires up your brain

(Courtesy of Stefan Van der Stigchel)

What caught your attention about this article? Maybe it was the headline or its placement on a page or computer screen. But as you read these words, plenty of other things are vying for your visual attention. Color, movement, pattern expectations all beckon you.

So what dictates what grabs you? “How Attention Works,” written by Stefan Van der Stigchel and translated from the Dutch by Danny Guinan, answers that question. A cognitive psychologist, Van der Stigchel is interested in how human brains process visual information. His book is slender but packed with information about how the brain navigates a complex visual world.

Using metaphors, thought experiments and anecdotes, Van der Stigchel invites readers to consider the relationship between their eyes and brains. He explains how the brain processes visual information, filtering out what doesn’t matter and deciding what does. And he looks at what scientists have learned about attention from people with visual or cognitive challenges.

The sense of “reality” our brains construct using visual cues is strongly influenced by context, expectations, associations and memories. Our reflexes can hijack our perceptions, causing us to focus on what Van der Stigchel calls “intrusive information.”

Just because we are bombarded with bids for our attention and reflexes that make us more likely to look at one thing over another doesn’t mean we can’t control who and what gets our attention, Van der Stigchel says.

He sees the world as a battlefield on which competing forces wage war for our attention. “We are often slaves to our own attention system,” he writes. But there’s hope, the author implies: Understanding the grand illusion of the world we think we see around us might just allow us to take back control.

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