Preaching Articles

If Jesus Gave a TED Talk Principle 2—Pique Interest (Attention)


Whatever you focus your attention on will become important to you even if it's unimportant.      

--Sonya Parker


This article continues a series of articles on 8 neuroscience-based principles that Jesus modeled for us that can profoundly improve our preaching and teaching. They are based on my latest book, If Jesus Gave a TED Talk: 8 neuroscience principles the Master Teacher used to persuade His audience. Today’s principle is Principle 2-- Pique Interest (Attention).

***

In 2015 the pages of Time, USA, the Guardian, and other magazines prominently displayed this headline: You Now have a Shorter Attention Span than a Goldfish. It quoted a study for Microsoft by Canadian researchers who surveyed 2,000 people and studied the brain activity of 112 others using EEG. The article stated that researchers discovered that since 2000 the average human attention span had dropped from twelve seconds to eight seconds. Your kids’ goldfish apparently maintains attention longer, nine seconds. That story swept through the internet with the catchy goldfish anecdote and it still persists today. 

The only problem? It was false. The eight second figure was actually taken from another website that could not back up their eight second claim with any research. Eight seconds actually reflected the average time a person spent on a web page before moving on to another.

This neuromyth (myths created from pseudo-neuroscience) highlights the interest in and attention we pay to… attention. Another neuromyth considered ‘common knowledge’ is that attention from students during a lecture lasts only 10-15 minutes. This, too, lacks evidence-based research to support it. This neuromyth has been propagated by many who relied on a 1978 literature review on how the amount of note-taking declined during a lecture after 10-15 minutes. They concluded that note-taking declined not because attention waned but because lecture content dropped and that note-taking decline does not necessarily indicate a decline in attention. Yet, this neuromyth also persists.

Although such neuromyths never seem to die, our ability to maintain attention does appear to be waning in today’s 24/7 always on culture. Psychologists have even coined a term to describe a problem that afflicts 30-40% of the workforce, attention deficit trait, ADT.

‘Attention’ has captured the interest of many through the ages. William James, considered the founder of modern psychology, once noted, The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will. When I refer to attention I’m referring to “all the mechanisms by which the brain selects information, amplifies it, channels it, and deepens its processing.”

God gave us the ability to pay attention because our brains can’t process everything our senses perceive from our environment. We simply could not digest them. And the Scriptures remind us that genuine faith that effects spiritual transformation requires hearing which requires attention (Rm 10.17). So, we might also say that hearts can’t be transformed without attention.

Jesus commanded people’s attention and would often arrest their attention with different phrases. He said, “I tell you” (numerous Scriptures), “He who has ears to hear let him hear (Mk 4.9, 23; Lk 14.35),”and, “Listen and understand (Mt 15.10).” Sometimes he would even ask them if they understood (Mt 16.9, 24.43; Mk 4.13). He was so effective at keeping attention that it sometimes created problems for Him. Mark records one time that He captured the people’s attention so well that crowds grew so large and crowded around Him that He had to use a boat as a temporary platform (Mk 4.1). On another occasion, He kept the crowd’s attention so effectively that they apparently forgot to eat (Mk 6.35-36).

So, it behooves us preachers to pay attention to attention because nothing gets learned that is not paid attention to. Paying little or no attention induces little or no learning. Attention is necessary for retention but does not guarantee it. Attention provides one substantial piece of the learning puzzle, but not all of it. 

ADAPT YOUR SERMON TO THE DYNAMICS OF ATTENTION.

Probably every parent has told their child multiple times, “Pay attention to me!” Our attention simply wanders, whether you are a child or an adult. And durable learning depends on attention. And the first few seconds in a talk or sermon are very important as author and business coach Paul Hellman writes, “When you stand up and speak, your audience experiences you like a movie. Their first thought: is this movie interesting? And they may only give you 8 seconds to find out.”

So how does attention in our brains work?

Attention involves the both the ability to focus on something (acting like an amplifier) and at the same time to ignore distractions (acting like a filter). Dr. Mel Levine, author and child educational expert, says that three types of control structures influence attention: “mental energy control (which decides one’s level of alertness, the balance between sleep and wakefulness, and consistency in achievement), processing control (which decides what’s important, as in saliency, and is responsible for detail processing), and production control (which determines orders and steps and is responsible for self-monitoring).” Control structures as well as process influence attention. So, to pay attention means that we choose, filter, and select the object of our attention.

A popular evidence-based model that explains attention was originally developed by Dr. Michael Posner. This model incorporates three distinct sequential brain processes or networks.

  • An alerting network involving the brain stem arousal systems and the right hemisphere, the when to attend that increases our level of vigilance.

  • An orienting network involving the parietal cortex (on top of our brain), the what to attend to that amplifies what we pay attention to.

  • An executive (or maintaining) network involving the cingulate cortex (a bit behind our forehead), which, “decides how to process the attended information, selects the processes that are relevant to a given task, and controls their execution.”

 In the first phase, since our brain constantly scans our environment for something unusual, when something unusual does occur, it senses it and is alerted (the when). A brain chemical (neurotransmitter) called norepinephrine enhances this signal. In the orient phase, we seek more information by orienting our attention to it (the where). Acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter involved in learning, plays a role here. This neurotransmitter is strongly involved in the neural circuitry that enhances attention. And in the final phase we become conscious of the stimulus and respond to it and focus our attention. Dopamine is involved at this phase as it helps block other distractions. This process can be compared to the three parts of firing a gun: load, aim, fire. 

Another helpful metaphor for understanding attention is how spotlights are used in an auditorium during a theatrical performance. First the lights go down (the producers gain your attention for the show is about to begin, the alerting stage). A spotlight then focuses on the main character who is on stage (they direct your attention, the orienting phase), and then the spotlight changes its focus to various key characters at different moments during the play (they sustain your attention where they want you to continue to place it, the act or maintaining phase).

So, when you deliver your sermon, all three of these components of attention come into play in your listeners’ brains: listen (gain their attention), listen to this (focus their attention), keep listening to this (maintain their attention). This sequence happens repeatedly in your listener’s brain during every sermon or lesson you teach. Jesus masterfully gained and maintained His learners’ attention. He asked for it, as He often said, “He who has ears to hear, let them hear (MK 4.9), and the result was that the people, “hung on His words (Lk 19.48).”

So, when you write and deliver your sermons, keep this key principle in mind: Pique Interest (Attention). I hope you’ll check out each article. The next article will look at Principle 3—Create Connection (Affinity)

And, if you’d like a free chart that captures all the principles and key components in this series, you can get a free one by clicking here.


This article was adapted by permission and comes from Charles Stone’s 7th book titled If Jesus Gave a TED Talk: Eight NEUROSCIENCE principles the Master Teacher used to persuade His audience (Freiling Publishing, 2021).


For a free chapter, go here.


You can follow Charles at www.charlesstone.com

 

Charles has been a pastor for forty years in the US and Canada. He has authored seven books, and his writing has appeared over 300 times on leading Christian leadership websites. His passion is neuroministry, intersecting Biblical truth with neuroscience. He has earned four degrees and is currently completing his PhD. He has been married forty-one years to his wife Sherryl, and they have three adult children and three grandchildren. His current book is If Jesus Gave a TED Talk: 8 neuroscience principles the Master Teacher used to persuade His audience (2021, Freiling Publishing). www.charlesstone.com
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