In a Tell Me More podcast, Tufts experts explore the nature of attention, from the trouble with multitasking to the costs of staying too focused
We get it: You’ve got limited time and too many things demanding your attention. We’re vying for your attention right now, when you could be scrolling Instagram. So we’ll cut to the chase. In this episode, we set out to get advice on how to better use our attention, and find that there are few easy answers.
First of all, if you think that multitasking is the key to doing it all, a psychologist tells you to think again. And sure, paying attention is key for remembering important things, but even when we try to pay attention, what we remember is not always under our control, as a memory expert explains. In fact, as an anthropologist tells us, paying attention is not just something that goes on in our own brains—our culture also determines what is worth paying attention to and how guilty we feel about giving in to distraction.
We get some tips on staying focused from someone who lives with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. A brief trip to the wild looks at what can happen when we pay too much attention to something. Finally, we see what we can learn from our pets, who are very good about attending to us (squirrels not withstanding), and have evolved to know just the right ways to get our attention.
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People You’ll Hear in This Episode
Ayanna Thomas, professor and director of graduate studies in the Department of Psychology, studies memory—primarily by looking at the ways it fails us. She investigates how eyewitnesses can be more accurate in court cases, ways that stress negatively impacts memory processes, and methods to help us make the most of our memory as we get older. She heads up the Cognitive Aging and Memory Lab.
Nico Daglio Fine, A23, is enrolled in the Tufts/New England Conservatory Dual Degree Program. He is a musician, composer, and multimedia artist. Lately, he’s been thinking about the difference between hearing and listening as described by the late Pauline Oliveros.
Sara Lewis, a professor in the Department of Biology, is an evolutionary ecologist who focuses mainly on insect conservation. She recently led an international team of biologists in an investigation of firefly tourism, which led to a review published in the journal Conservation Science and Practice. Read more about work from the Lewis Lab.
Anna Miller: Does this sound familiar?
[Car sounds. Kids arguing in backseat. Text alerts. Weather report on the radio. Honking.]
Miller: Everywhere we go, it seems like things are always vying for our attention. So how do we cut through the noise - and actually focus?
Miller: This is Tell Me More, the Tufts University podcast. I’m Anna Miller.
Julie Flaherty: And I’m Julie Flaherty.
Miller: In this episode, we’re figuring out how to avoid distractions and make the most of our attention spans.
Flaherty: If you’re keeping track, you can add distraction to the list of challenges the pandemic has brought us. For people who have been working from home this past year, it has meant keeping one eye on your kid while he pretends to do remote school and the other on your cat who is just itching to jump into your Zoom meeting.
Miller: So we talked to Tufts experts about how attention works, hoping to get some advice on how to be more focused. What we found is that attention is a lot more complex than we ever thought.
First up: the art of multitasking. We turned to Assistant Professor Nate Ward, an applied cognitive psychologist who researches just that.
Nate Ward: In my lab, we study multitasking by looking at what happens when we try to shift and divide our attention.
Miller: For example, distracted driving. Ward and his team of undergraduate and graduate students study it using a realistic driving simulator in a lab.
Ward: Yeah. So it looks like if you took the cab out of a Ford Fusion. And then there are these five sort of big screens to try to simulate a decent field of view. We have a seatbelt, you can adjust the lumbar support, et cetera.
[whishing of cars going by]
Miller: In the simulation, they can control things such as traffic density and weather patterns – but what they’re really going after is whether we are able to successfully juggle competing tasks.
Ward: So we can put people in there and have them drive without a distraction, then have them drive, while, maybe talking with a passenger...
“How are you doing?
“I’m good, how are you?”
...or do a traditional lab task, but in a simulator, like counting backwards by sevens…
“Forty-two, thirty-five, twenty-eight, fourteen...”
And they found that not all distractions are equal. Some require a lot more of our attention than others.
Ward: So in distracted driving research, we can think about types of distraction as being more visual or manual or cognitive, right? And so manual would be, if I take my hand off the wheel, cognitive would be, if I'm thinking about something else while driving instead of the drive, and then visual would be sort of taking my eyes off the actual road, right? And really, visual, anything visual, is pretty bad behind the wheel, right? So I would say if you had to pick one thing that is the worst that we have found over the years, it would be texting, texting while driving by far.
Miller: Are humans ever really good at multitasking or is the outcome just always terrible?
Ward: Well, I wish I could say that we would always be really good at it. I mean, in general we struggle, right? We struggle to both shift and divide our attention successfully. I think across the board that’s fairly noncontroversial. In terms of, are there certain people who might be better at it? Yeah, absolutely. I'd done some work before where we happened to find a group of individuals for whom they were able to sort of divide and shift their attention in both a sort of simulation study, right, with a driving simulator. And then we were able to bring them back in and look at their brains while they were doing a more traditional lab task and compared to some controls and for this group of people, which we sort of dubbed the supertaskers, we found that they essentially were able to complete the activities, as well if not better behaviorally as the control group yet, they were doing it with less activation in areas traditionally required in the brain for those activities. So it could be this idea that maybe they were being more neuro-efficient, et cetera. But the huge caveat here is that this is rare. These are by far the outliers. And I would say that the more common thing we see in a lot of our studies is that it's really hard to successfully shift and divide our attention.
Miller: Are you a supertasker?
Ward: No, no. So research is me-search, and I think that’s part of the reason why I love studying multitasking is because I am terrible at it.
Miller: Do we often assume that we're more attentive than we actually are? Like, do we have this bias that we're good drivers and we're not distracted where in reality, we're more distracted than we realize?
Ward: Absolutely. So in some studies we find that those who say they do it the most, that multitask the most, and they think they have little issues with it, in the studies we've looked at, they actually are the worst at it. And they're not aware of it. And that sort of makes sense, right? It's almost like they're not able to pay attention to their deficits because that's the nature of attention, right? They didn't sort of have that achievement, I guess. So yeah, we do find that we tend to have an overinflated view of our abilities to be able to sort of multitask.
Miller: So is our attention capacity hardwired? Or is it something that we can improve upon?
Ward: So one of the things that we have learned over the years is that by doing a certain activity, engaging in maybe a brain train of a certain task, certainly we can get better at that task. The much harder thing to show is how that will transfer to unrelated or distantly related tasks, this idea of far transfer. And there, I think it's still too early to say definitively how that will play out. We're certainly investigating this though, because it has such great promise. I just, right now, whenever my parents asked me if they should pay for a certain brain training app, I was encouraging them to go for a walk first. It's cheaper and honestly, exercise has all these other downstream effects on our cognitive abilities and our cardiovasculature.
Miller: Ward is quick to note that distraction unfairly gets a bad rap. But it can sometimes be really beneficial to us.
Ward: It turns out that there are ways in which distraction can be a really good thing. So for example, if someone is starting out exercising for the first time, having some distracting music, right, to keep their mind occupied and not thinking about how much pain their knees are in right now. We're actually doing a formal study with some researchers in occupational therapy. What we're looking at is if we could use, say, immersive virtual reality to distract people who might be in chronic pain from the chronic pain. And so that's yet another use, I would say that is sort of a positive use, of distraction.
Flaherty: When people make an effort to pay attention, it’s often because they want to remember something—whether it’s facts for a quiz or where they parked their car. But lots of things can get in between us and making memories, as reporter Monica Jimenez found out when she talked with Tufts psychology professor Ayanna Thomas.
Monica Jimenez: Ayanna Thomas runs the Cognitive Aging and Memory Lab at Tufts. She has been studying memory for 25 years and says that understanding memory really means understanding attention.
Ayanna Thomas: We’ve all been in the situation where you started driving and you realize you’re not going to the right place that you intended to because you went on auto pilot and started going to a place that you regularly drive to. That's sort of realizing you can have memories and engage in memories without giving it your full attention.
But can you learn information, can you encode new memories without attending to it? Can I try and acquire a second language by listening to that at night while I'm asleep? I don't think so.
When you have to try and parse out new information, you don't have any sort of preexisting schema to help you guide what you're doing, attention processes are critical.
Jimenez: But making memories isn’t just about whether you’re paying attention—a key element is stress.
Thomas: If you witness a violent crime, likely that's going to engender a release of a cascade of hormones and those hormones, like norepinephrine and adrenaline, but also cortisol, will have direct impact on attention and memory processes when you’re experiencing it, but also, you might re-experience that stress when you’re remembering that information.
We have this hypothesis that when one experiences a stress response and they have that high level of adrenaline—so you feel your heart racing, you start to perspire [sound of a thumping heart]—it actually is going to focus attention on what might be threatening in the environment. But there's going to be a tradeoff. They're going to miss information in the periphery. [Sound of birds chirping] Sometimes you hear people with a misconception that if they experience something really, really stressful, it's going to burn it into your memories, like you're just going to have this really clear vivid recollection almost like a flash bulb of this particular event. But that's definitely not the case.
Jimenez: All this happens when our attention is amplified—how about when we’re distracted?
Thomas: When people are in divided attention experiments, they are more susceptible to what I'll call false memory errors, so these kinds of reconstruction errors, than when they’re not. Every time we sort of try and go back in and try and pull out more information, we're likely to add information that wasn't there.
Jimenez: And the more attention you pay to those memories, the worse the effect can be.
Thomas: I do other cases where these kinds of reconstruction and people trying to give attention to memories that they haven't forgotten, through things like ‘I'm going to try and visualize it. I'm going to try and engage in these other kinds of cognitive processes.’ And unfortunately, there's too much evidence to suggest that those kinds of techniques are actually techniques that result in greater distortion.
I think people have to realize that sometimes you just don’t remember things. And there’s nothing that you can do that’s going to get that information back.
Jimenez: So the answer is just to always be paying full attention so you don’t miss anything, right?
Thomas: I gave this talk to some law professors. They were really interested to the applications to the legal arena. And so I showed them this video. And I say “I just want you to watch this video.” It’s a poster session. It's a minute and a half and they’re watching students milling around a poster session. And at the end of the minute and a half, I said, "Okay, there was a crime. Did anyone see the crime?" Only one person in my audience saw the crime. And I said, “Okay, you one person, describe the crime.” He was able to. There was a theft of a backpack. He was able to describe the backpack. And I said, "Okay, can you pick out the assailant from a lineup? I’m going to give you a lineup.” He was not able to do that. He said, “I have no idea.” He was looking right at the person.
Even in their full, I assume a full attention state, who knows what people are doing, really? We're not fully engaged. So that's going to impact what we're going to be able to really remember later on.
Jimenez: Does just knowing any of this help?
Thomas: I could probably do a false memory demonstration on you right now and tell you it's a false memory demonstration and you would still demonstrate the false memory. Memory is funny.
I think that memories are central to who we are as people. They give us our sense of selves. What we choose to remember, what we consciously remember versus what we forget, really informs our identity and informs the way that we interact with the world around us.
And that is just fascinating to me because what we choose to remember and how we remember it is not necessarily how things were. And so who we are is a construct almost a fiction that we've created for ourselves.
Flaherty: Staying attentive is a challenge for anyone, but especially for people with autism or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Many children with autism also have ADHD, and it can be tricky for clinicians to diagnose both conditions at the same time.
Eileen Crehan is an assistant professor in the Department of Child Study and Human Development. She’s conducting a study that uses attention to try to differentiate between autism and ADHD. She shows children images and videos of kid-friendly stuff like Pokémon, along with videos of people moving, people talking, and faces showing different emotions. She then monitors where the kids look and for how long. By the way, she’s on maternity leave right now with her daughter, the little distraction you’ll hear cooing in the background.
Eileen Crehan: SO the eye tracker captures eye movements of our research participants and very, very slight ones. It's like within half a degree of visual angle, which is really, really small amounts of space because our eyes move so quickly and in such small increments to, to take in information. And so we present a bunch of social information on a screen. And then we look at how people with ADHD, autistic people, people who have both diagnoses and people who have neither diagnosis taking the social information to try to identify group differences and similarities in how social attention is given and noticed.
We know that emotion identification can sometimes be more of a challenge for kids on the spectrum. So is that may be a differentiating social attention behavior between kids with one diagnosis versus the other?
Flaherty: The social information is important, because children with autism can have a harder time processing social cues or even making eye contact. Eye contact is not only the main way we show people that we are paying attention to them, it’s also how we get info on that person’s intentions or feelings.
Crehan: And so for particularly in autism, I've had a lot of patients who have described that, you know, when I look someone directly in the eye, I get so much information, it's this extremely overwhelming sensory experience. It's almost like someone is yelling at me.
Flaherty: Children with autism or ADHD may not use their attention the way others do, but Crehan emphasizes that that is not always a bad thing.
Crehan: Throughout history, we've had folks who have had autism, folks who've had ADHD, who have made like really remarkable contributions to society because of these symptoms that often are framed as deficits. Right? You know, speaking of attention, some people on the spectrum have incredibly like focused interests on things like, you know, physics. So they can solve complex physics problems that would take most of us our lives to really work through. And so neurodiversity is really saying, instead of saying, Hey, there's something wrong with you and we need to fix it. It's like, okay, your brain works differently than many of the other brains out there, but what are the benefits of that? And what are some ways that we can celebrate that because when you think about it, like everyone's brain is a little bit different, right. It's really that there's all different abilities that everyone has and that's what makes the world go round. Right? There's actually a really a lot of power that comes from that. If we all have the same exact brain, we wouldn't have made it very far as a civilization.
Flaherty: Tufts student Nico Daglio Fine, class of 2023, chose an academic path that would challenge anyone’s attention. He studies physics and philosophy at the School of Arts and Sciences, but also jazz composition and drums at the New England Conservatory of Music. That’s some of his music you hear right now. He also has ADHD, and he says it tests him every day. But ADHD isn’t all about distraction—in fact, Daglio Fine often deals with something called hyperfocus.
Nico Daglio Fine: Hyperfocus is when you get like drawn into one task or one activity or one just thing. It's just this, this mental state, this feeling, this position of everything within that task is the most important thing. And it grows to like encompass your whole entire psyche. If I'm hyperfocused on music that I'm working on, I'll just spend, I mean, like an entire day. I'll forget to eat, I'll forget to sleep. I'll forget to do everything basically. That's the only thing that exists anymore.
It's really just the most profound thing ever to live in a little musical world and explore it for hours and hours.
Flaherty: The downside of hyperfocus is that he doesn’t always know when it’s happening, and that can mean getting lost in something he doesn’t really want to spend his attention on.
Daglio Fine: Oh man, the worst is when you're just like scrolling Instagram and then some sort of fragment of hyperfocus kicks in and then you find some page and you're just like going through every single post. And it's like, why am I spending 30 minutes or an hour even longer? And that's the worst because then unlike making music, you don't come out of it with anything. You're not, entering a world, you're, like, entering someone else's Instagram feed. So I guess that's a con is that it's really hard to control and it's unpredictable.
Flaherty: He’s far from figuring it all out, but he has found some strategies that help him manage his attention.
Daglio Fine: One thing is I set screen time limits for like certain apps on my phone. And I deliberately like lost the password for that.
Flaherty: Recently, he’s been experimenting with meditation, and finds that regularly clearing his mind helps him to focus.
Daglio Fine: I've noticed that intentionally doing nothing is a great first step to intentionally doing anything. And intentionally doing nothing can come in a lot of forms. One of which is meditation, another of which is listening to music.
Flaherty: He’s also been trying out something called deep listening, a practice invented by experimental musician and accordionist Pauline Oliveros. It involves listening intently to a piece of music that is just a handful of sustained notes.
It’s not for everyone’s taste, but Daglio Fine really seems get it.
Daglio Fine: Just feeling the music and kind of throwing away any thinking, throwing away any sense of self and just existing within the sounds that you hear and having them completely take over your entire mind. For me it's like a cheat code to get to where I want to be, which is not caught up in my thoughts. If I'm listening to music in this way—sometimes it feels like listening is the wrong verb. Sometimes it feels like hearing should be the right verb. When you come back and when you like land on earth, then it's like, wow, I, I really feel like I can choose what I'm going to do. And that's like such an unusual experience, for me at least.
Because the whole goal in the end is To learn more about your brain and to learn more about your own experience in a way that lets you take full advantage of your own life. You know, cause that's what attention and focus feels like, it's like intentionally living. And I mean, I'd hate to unintentionally live. I'd hate to lose the whole experience of life just because I wasn't paying attention.
Flaherty: Daglio Fine says he’s not sure what parts of the way he thinks are ADHD-related. But even if he could, he wouldn’t change that part of him.
Daglio Fine: As much as ADHD is being distracted by everything, it's also, like, being inspired by everything.
Flaherty: Nick Seaver, an assistant professor in Tufts’ anthropology department, teaches a class called How to Pay Attention. But before you get too excited that Seaver has all the answers, he admits that more than one student has called that class title a bit of a bait and switch.
Nick Seaver: I get students there on the first day who like everybody else are really worried about their ability to pay attention. You know, they feel bad about how they focus. They feel like they can't focus. They're concerned about, you know, how can they be more productive? All of these sorts of things. And with a class called How to Pay Attention, you might think that you would learn, you know, some tips and tricks for how to attend better. And that's not really what the class is about. The class is about the idea of paying attention as a sort of cultural phenomenon. It's about why it is that they have these feelings. It's about why we think that attention is so important.
Flaherty: Like most people, I tend to think of my attention as just that—mine. It’s something that goes on in my head. Yet Seaver says attention has a lot to do with stuff we don’t control—like what society values.
Seaver: We think of some kinds of attention as good and some kinds of attention as bad. So, let's say if I were to spend a whole weekend playing video games we would think of that as being a waste of my attention, of it being a bad kind of attention. But if I spent that whole weekend trying to read Middlemarch or some big novel, that would be a good form of attention. Now that's arbitrary, right? That's a sort of culturally specific kind of value. So if we want to understand that feeling that students have about worrying about their attention, I think that only really makes sense within a broader social and cultural context.
Flaherty: Apparently, the warnings about the dangers of people wasting their attention have been going on for centuries.
Seaver: If you go back in time, you can always find people it seems at different moments, really worried about the attentional effects of the latest media technology. And so, I mean, you can do this really all the way back to writing in the first place where people are worried, you know, the classic line from Plato about the idea that writing is going to make it harder for people to remember, because there's an outsourcing of their memory to external devices. But you go forward, you'll find people worried about, you know, in the sort of 1600s and 1700s [sounds of classical music], worried about how many books there are and how are people going to pay attention to all these books. You find people worried about cheap paperback books, you find people worried about movies, the radio and so on [sounds of channels switching].
So my interest—and this is a standard anthropological kind of thing—is not so much to judge these things and say like, okay, is it really a problem or not? And more to just recognize how arbitrary they can be, to recognize how it really could be some other way. And that's where I think the students actually come out feeling a little bit better about their attention, because I, I can tell them, you know, it's okay. It's not an absolute universal fact of the world that the way that you're organizing your attention right now is bad. Like, you don't have to feel bad about what's happening to your brain.
So the idea that what we ought to be doing is being as productive as possible and if our attention is a kind of resource that we have that we can dedicate towards being productive, then we're being bad in so far as we're not using our attention to amplify our productivity.
Now a very classic history of this idea is some of our earliest statements of attention in say European, cultural contexts are religious, right? [choral music] That attention is something you do when you are at church, attention is what you do, you sit in a pew, if you're in a Christian context, and you listen to a sermon and if you can sit there and listen for a long time, or if you're praying, you're focusing your attention in a religious direction, that's good.
And being attentive and being virtuous, sort of hang together in a religious context. And then later in this kind of workplace context. Now, again, that's a virtue that people believe in. That's a virtue that people think is important. It's not one that we have to think is important. And it's certainly one that people have critiqued quite a bit because you know, why not let us do something else with our attention, then be productive with it?
Flaherty: Even though his class isn’t about becoming more attentive, Seaver does ask his students to take part in attention exercises. He takes them to the university’s art gallery, where a staff member leads them through a sustained contemplation of a work of art. A bodywork instructor shows students how to notice what is going in their corporeal selves. And remember that accordion music from Pauline Oliveros? Well, it turns out that Seaver actually gets his students to listen to it.
Seaver: In the seminar room, we turn down the lights a little bit, turn on this accordion drone piece. It's about as long as a contemporary sit-com, right, except that it's one person playing a handful of notes on the accordion for that long. And that's not something that students normally do in their everyday life.
And they have this extraordinary experience of like saying, Okay, I'm gonna play this game. I'm going to do this. Sure. Why not? They feel like it's maybe virtuous, right? To sit and pay attention to something deeply. And I told them to, so I'm their professor and they feel like that makes it good, too. Then they get really bored and they really want to check their phones. But you know, they can't pull out their phone, we’re in a darkened room, and then they sort of get into the zone and they find themselves sort of popping up 20 minutes later. Like, Oh my God, what just happened? How long was I listening to that? And I love doing that because there are so few opportunities I find for us to really engage our attention.
I guess what I really want them to come away with is a more expansive understanding of what attention is. I think as individuals, there's not a whole lot that we can do. And I'm not saying that it's not possible to have willpower or something like that. I'm just saying that if attention is a thing that we all do together, it's a sort of communal practice. Nobody on their own is going to be able to change the way that attention happens.
For me, at least, the thing that I've found useful as someone who like anyone else has worried about my attention—and if you hear faintly in the background, children running around and yelling, that's part of it—I find some confidence, some comfort in this idea that my attention is not entirely up to me.
Flaherty: So maybe we shouldn’t feel guilty about spending our attention on the things we want to. Giving attention to something you love can only be a good thing, right? Well, biologist Sara Lewis notes that humans are pretty good at loving things to death.
Sara Lewis: I'm Sara Lewis and I'm a professor of biology at Tufts University and I am an evolutionary ecologist. I mainly work on insect conservation.
Flaherty: In this case, she’s talking about an insect people really like: the firefly. Lewis and her colleagues recently did a study on something called firefly tourism, where people gather in certain places in the world with high concentrations of fireflies. And they get to watch a show that sounds pretty fantastic.
Lewis: So you're standing in a completely dark forest and all around you are these tiny sparks, these silent sparks that are lighting up the night, all around you. And in some cases in certain species when the density of the insects is high enough, the fireflies are flashing simultaneously. So they're synchronous and they're flying around, they're all flashing together. And it's a really amazing experience. I've heard people describe it as breathtaking, awe-inspiring. Some people actually say that it's something that transforms their lives.
Flaherty: Firefly tourism has boomed in the last decade, with about one million people around the world traveling to see fireflies every year. Lewis says it’s a great thing for local economies.
Lewis: Many of these firefly tourist sites are in countries where there's a lot of poverty and in rural areas. And so fireflies are an economic insect in many countries. They're like a national treasure. They bring in jobs, they bring in revenue, they benefit people who live in the host communities. So that's a really, really great thing, too. And so I would say that firefly tourism has a big impact on people's lives, both psychological, economic, and social.
Flaherty: All that attention comes with some downsides.
Lewis: We know from Thailand that too many tourists going out to see fireflies that live along mangrove rivers can cause the erosion of riverbanks and destroy the habitat where the firefly larvae are growing up. And we also know for other fireflies that too many people walking through their habitat can actually compact the soil and fragment the leaf litter where the the juvenile stages of fireflies live.
Flaherty: You may know that fireflies use their bioluminescence as a way to attract mates. And nothing puts a damper on a firefly’s love life like light pollution.
Lewis: Bright lights, signs on buildings, restrooms, car headlights, lanterns that people will carry out into the forest, flashlights, even cell phones turn out to disrupt firefly courtship rituals. And then the last big impact of tourism on fireflies is trampling. So when people are walking through the firefly habitat, they actually don't even realize most of the time that they could be stepping on firefly larvae, the juvenile stages of fireflies, and also many species of fireflies have females that don't have any wings. And so they can't fly. And these flightless females are down on the ground, unfortunately underfoot, so people inadvertently are also stepping if they're walking off the trail, they're stepping on these egg-laying females who are carrying the next firefly generation.
Flaherty: Lewis doesn’t want to get rid of firefly tourism. She says with changes that protect mangrove forests, stomp trampling, and minimize light pollution, firefly tourism can be safe and sustainable.
Lewis: We're hoping to be able to work with government, with tour agencies, with tour operators, and with tourists to let them know how to improve the situation for fireflies. We would like it to be a win, win, win situation for the fireflies, yay! For the tourists. Yes, definitely. And also for the for the local communities in many places, which are hosting all of these tours.
I think the real value in it is that it makes people realize that there's other creatures on this planet besides, you know, people and mammals and we should really value those things and try to protect them.
I think the more attention that we can draw to these species the better off we will be—human beings. And we just need to make sure that we do it in a way that also protects the animals that people are going to see.
Miller: We can learn a lot from our pets, who have mastered the art of getting our attention.
Stephanie Borns-Weil: They're so good at knowing when exactly is the perfect moment or exactly what pitch they have to whine or bark to get you to pay attention [dog whining], just like cats know exactly which thing to throw off a shelf to get you to jump up and start waving your hands and becoming interesting [cat meowing, crashing sound] because they've already thrown all the tissues and things you don't care about. It's not that they're bad animals or badly trained. It's just, they don't understand why one day we went to work and the next day when we were home, we couldn't pay attention to them.
Miller: That’s Dr. Stephanie Borns-Weil, a clinical assistant professor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, and a leading animal behaviorist.
Borns-Weil: We often project onto them. We think we know what they mean without actually knowing what they need. They generally—dogs especially—read as much better than we read them. It turns out that dogs actually can read people better than people can read people. That's their superpower.
Miller: So what exactly are dogs paying attention to? What are they tapping into when they read us?
Borns-Weil: Our facial expressions, our body expressions, our odors, the sound of our voices, the tone. They don't have a language per se. They don't do grammar, they don’t have that part of the brain. But they do make association between certain words. You can be talking and you say something and you say, “We got the biggest treat at work today. Somebody brought in a cheesecake” and all of a sudden your dog is sleeping and they hear the word “treat.” They pop up and look around, or you say, I think I'm going to go out for a walk. And then all of a sudden you're tripping over your dog, try and get out the door. They scan our words for things that make sense to them.
Miller: So how did this happen? How did dogs get so good at paying attention to us—and vice versa?
Borns-Weil: Dogs were evolved to form a partnership with people. Dogs and wolves share a common ancestor, a now extinct wolf, but dogs branch off to make a partnership with human beings and they evolved to have these characteristics like floppier ears, smaller faces, smaller canine teeth. They were selected for appealing to us. They look in certain ways like human infants. They have shorter snouts. They also evolved changes in the eyes. This was actually identified relatively recently by comparative anatomists who looked and found that there are two eye muscles, the one that lifts the eyebrows and the one that pulls the eyes to the side, Dogs have very prominent ones. Wolves they're almost nothing, just little tiny muscles that don't do very much.
And what that does is allow the dogs to show more white around their eyes so their faces look more human. And it allows them to manipulate their puppy eyes. So they have evolved to be able to make puppy eyes and hijack the human caring instinct. [lullaby music] And what that does when a dog gazes at us that way is we get a shot of oxytocin that makes us love them. They too, we look back at them and they get oxytocin. So they're bonded to us. And so they read us very well because their survival depends on it.
Miller: But this need for attention can also be stressful for dogs—especially with so many people working from home during the pandemic.
Borns-Weil: One of the challenges of COVID for the dogs is they want to be where the action is, but it turns out they need more time to rest and they need some off time too. They need to clock out. And when we're home, they never clock out. They remain vigilant, they're ready to do their alarm barking, stuff like that. They also don’t want to miss out, so they follow us from room to room. And they're not getting their 14 hours of sleep that they need. And so I've seen a lot of increase in grumpiness. And in fact, dog bites are up substantially. There's just a report in the American Veterinary Medical Association newsletter that State Farm insurance reported a 21% increase in a dog-bite-related claims.
And that parallels with what I’ve found in a pediatric emergency room study that looked at dog bites compared to the year before. Some of it is just, people are around more, but I think people also don't realize that dogs need time to themselves. And sometimes dogs don't even take it, even though they need it, kind of like a toddler that gets overtired, but they still don't want to go to bed. And so you need to just give the dog the space they need to be able to rest and get their beauty rest.
Miller: Dogs don’t just want our attention. They want our undivided attention.
Borns-Weil: I think it's pretty extraordinary that something as abstract as attention is so meaningful to dogs. When I think about that it’s just like, wow! They can tell when you're looking at them and giving them attention versus just scratching them while you're reading a book or watching television. I mean, it's like, that's not good enough. You have to be actually paying attention. Which is pretty extraordinary.
Miller: To learn more about how to reduce attention-seeking behaviors in your dogs and cats and other advice from people in this episode, visit go.tufts.edu/attention.
Tell Me More is produced by Anna Miller and Julie Flaherty.
Flaherty: Additional reporting by Monica Jimenez.
Miller: Our executive producers are Dave Nuscher, Ronee Saroff and Katie Strollo.
Flaherty: Web production and editing support by Taylor McNeil and Sara Norberg.
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