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Shifting Paradigms: Focusing on Attention

Apr 12, 2024 | News, Shifting Paradigms

How do you get the attention of a theater full of teenage students? It’s magic!

And that’s exactly how the latest Shifting Paradigms conversation started as magician Tristan took the stage in a darkened theater buzzing with the energy of chatty teenage students.

In setting the stage, Dr. David Nelson, principal of the Academy reminded students that a paradigm is a pattern that determines how we see the world. The Shifting Paradigms initiative is powered by the Institute of ACS Athens and once again was co-hosted with the Academy (High School) of ACS Athens to present students with topics that are experiencing a dramatic shift so that they can navigate these changes with awareness and intentionality.

As the magic tricks performed on stage previewed, the topic of the day would be attention, something that can be distracted, managed and controlled.

Dr. Nelson kicked off the conversation by reminding students that data comes in many forms and from various sources. The formation of how we see and interpret the world comes from these data. Using visual examples of lines that come together to depict a railroad track and colors that look deceptively different depending on the background, he also showed how context distracts the information we are assessing.

“Students today are bombarded with so much data and information through their media feeds, and with it, there is so much low-quality content that sucks their attention,” Dr. Nelson explained. “We hope to increase students’ awareness and encourage them to slow down to think about the information they are receiving, including its context, accuracy, and value. After all, they are a reflection of what grabs their attention.”

To focus on the subject of attention, Carla Tanas, Dean of the Institute of ACS Athens introduced a panel of impressive experts, each with their own connection to attention to take the stage.

  • Alex Karageorgis, CEO of Project Agora
  • Argiro Vatakis, Associate Professor, Department of Psychology, Panteion University
  • Rubirossa Magus, President of the Hellenic Ring, International Brotherhood of Magicians
  • Yolanda Markopoulou, Director/Creative Producer, Polyplanity

As the discussion started, Ms. Tanas reminded students this is not a discussion about what is good or bad, but rather a reality to understand so that we can be more mindful in our approach since “it is our choice to pay attention to whatever we want; however what you pay attention to, you become.”

Mr. Alex Karageorgis, both an alum of ACS Athens (Class of 1995) and the father of two current students, explained how he shifted from study of engineering to marketing, first for Vodafone and then leading social media advertising for Facebook in the region. In marketing, he explained, “we take advantage of patterns of consumption. Once we understand the pattern, we piggyback on pattern changes and find something that will grab attention.” He shared that while a decade ago, marketers had six seconds to grab a consumer’s attention, today the time is closer to two or three seconds.

He underscored that it is vital that people, especially young people, understand that generally industries are looking to gain attention in order to sell something, whether that is a product, a service or an idea. Being able to see that for what it is important, but because the human brain has increasingly been spoiled by the immediate gratification from digital and social media, we are not allowing our brain to go as deep as it can and look at things as critically as we should.

“Think about what you are paying attention to,” Mr. Karageorgis urged. “What is it doing for YOU.”

Dr. Argiro Vatakis, an expert in the field of multisensory perception, explained to students that the brain is the best computer we have access to because it can create a new reality without ever being prompted. She used the example of how the brain allows us to perceive things as synchronous, like when we believe that we see a person speaking to us at the same time we hear what they are saying, even though light and sound travel at different speeds.

In discussing how the evolution of virtual reality (VR) will impact the brain, she shared how flexible the brain is in adapting to new environments, including the digital realm, but how it does so by bridging something real to it.

Citing an example of a high-tech project that was looking to offer a VR experience that felt like it transported the audience, she explained that a team had spent a lot of money and time developing advanced visual graphics and even robust digital sounds and yet audiences did not find the experience particularly immersive. In an attempt to sway the audience, the team brought in standing fans, and the addition of the one element of wind on their skin compelled the audience to believe they were traveling through space that the visual and sound alone could not deliver.

Mr. Rubirossa Magus, also an ACS Athens alumni (Class of 1985), offered that much like marketing, successful magicians manage and control perception by manipulating the audience’s attention, even when people know that it is happening.

“With magic, people enjoy being deceived,” he offered. “It’s our curiosity. When we don’t know something, it gets our attention. An experienced magician builds on that curiosity.”

With a similar twist on attention, Ms. Yolanda Markopoulou offered that in the case of theater or cinema, it is more a matter of keeping attention since the audience has already bought a ticket and prepared themselves to enjoy the show. But what happened when COVID-19 halted shows altogether? Both artists and audiences took to screens, and so it changed how we interact with screens. This has continued with the evolution of VR in film, where similar to the example that Dr. Patakis offered, artists are working with mixed reality to play on perceptions. Even though she is exploring the use of VR through her work, Ms. Markopoulou emphatically encouraged both teachers and students to utilize the benefit of art, especially in its analog forms as it gives us the freedom to express ourselves and tap into our imaginations with as little as a pencil and paper, which gives our busy brains a respite and place to recharge.

“The students seemed enthralled with the magician, but everyone wants to know how a magic trick works,” commented Mr. Mark McGowan, ACS Athens Director of AP and IB Programs, who co-moderated the discussion with Ms. Tanas. “The digital marketer explained how attention is captured, the psychologist how the mind interprets what it sees and the filmmaker how to continue telling a story. In a way, they explained how magic works.”

The discussion also showed students that attention has become the commodity that many industries, from advertising to entertainment and even science, are looking to capitalize on, and that as conscious citizens, it is our responsibility to be aware, mindful and intentional about it.

If as Ms. Tanas said, “what you pay attention to, you become,” then it is up to us to grant our attention to things that serve us well.

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