Thursday, February 2, 2012

The magic of attention and focus

Last week I attended and spoke at ASTD's TechKnowledge in Las Vegas, sitting on two panels: gamification, and learning experience design and activity streams. (If you just read that and thought "I have no idea what she's talking about," you're not alone...I'll be blogging about those topics in more detail soon.)

Yes, Teller speaks
For once, though, I actually did something in Vegas that wasn't conference related: I went to see Penn & Teller. A group of us all coordinated before the conference to get a block of tickets in the VIP section, which put us in prime position to be part of the show. If you haven't ever seen Penn & Teller, they involve the audience in many of their acts and often pull people up on stage. We must have been primed for magic, because four of us were selected at various points to assist with the show.

And I got to go up on stage for one of the acts.

About halfway through the show, Penn came into the audience, looked at me and asked, "do you wear contacts?" Now, you don't get pulled on stage at any magic show and think that it's going to be uneventful, but particularly at a Penn & Teller show, you know they are going to mess with you. Add to that, as I'm walking up on stage, that Penn is explaining to the audience that the trick they are about to perform is going to happen IN MY MIND. And the entire audience is going to get to watch. Great.

I wish I had video of what the audience could see as I was on stage, but for obvious reasons, Penn & Teller don't allow video or photography. So I'll describe to you what was going on in my mind...where all the magic happened.

When I got on stage, Penn told me to stand on an X in the middle of the stage. The auditorium lights dimmed and a REALLY BRIGHT spotlight was pointed directly at me, which meant that I couldn't see the audience at all and created a very surreal sensation of being alone with Penn & Teller on stage. Even if I was afraid of being on stage in front of a large audience (obviously I'm not), this simple lighting adjustment took the audience completely out of my attention.

Penn started telling me, and the audience, what was going to happen. He spoke fast, and if you've heard Penn Jillette speak, you know he has a deep, booming voice. He said that he was going to give me a series of commands, and that he would be asking me to open and close my eyes. When I closed my eyes, he and Teller would be placing their fingers on my eyelids (the reason why me not wearing contacts was important) and that they would also be touching my arms, my shoulders, etc. Then Penn started giving me instructions, saying my name with every command.

Penn not only has a commanding voice,
but an impressive presence (and one cool nail)
"Koreen, I want you to hold out your hands and we're going to hold your wrists. Hold on to this ring with both hands like its a steering wheel. Close your eyes, Koreen (they put their fingers on my eyelids). Visualize the ring in your hands. Listen to my voice, Koreen. See the map in your mind of where I am based on my voice. Now, Koreen, take the ring and place it over my head (I did).

And on and on it went. Opening my eyes, closing my eyes. Holding the ring, visualizing the ring. Feeling them touching my arms and shoulders. Following their instructions. Penn holding my attention on his words by saying my name over and over. At some point, I knew that it was Teller that had his fingertips on both of my eyelids. It didn't matter; my brain was focused, trying to follow directions and not embarrass myself in front of the audience that I knew was there but I couldn't see. The main "trick" was that the ring would move from not feeling like it was around my arm to "magically" hanging from around my arm.

Yes, as I was standing there up on stage, it felt like magic. My mind couldn't comprehend, with the limited data set that I had (mostly tactile), how the ring went from being in my hands or on top of my arm, to being around my arm. I didn't have a severed limb and I didn't feel the ring go through, was magic. I did "get" some of what they were doing that the audience could see but I couldn't. I knew that Teller was doing most of the touching and Penn was constantly keeping my auditory attention. Honestly, it was all I could do to keep up.

The best/worst part, and no one had this information but me, was at one point, Penn told me to do something with my left hand while my eyes were closed. I realize that for most people, this would be no big deal, but I have evidently grown up with the absolute inability to remember which is my right or left hand without making the 'L' with my forefinger and thumb. When Penn said the command, I literally had a moment of panic that I didn't know which hand was my left, that I was going to use the wrong hand and mess up the trick and embarrass myself on stage. Luckily, 50/50 odds are pretty decent for Vegas and I picked the correct left.

Then it was over, the rings magically around my arms, not, then again. As I walked off the stage and back to my seat, my mind was reeling with every moment of the experience: what did I see, hear, feel...what did I know? I knew the audience had seen the "trick," but it didn't matter...all the magic HAD happened in my mind.

I have no idea where I originally heard the phrase "perception shapes reality" but its what I kept coming back to as I deconstructed my 5 minutes as a magic act assistant. For me, despite what was really happening on stage, my mind was processing the experience from the data that was available to me. My perception was that the rings suddenly appearing around my arms was magic. I had no other explanation and my mind couldn't piece together other alternatives in the time that I was on stage. From the perception of the audience, however, I had just been fooled into thinking it was magic. It was clear to me that there was a lot more going on than I knew about and the rings around my arms weren't there by magic; it was only through the strategic filtering of information to me did that become my perception.

Someone asked me after the show if I knew what was going on. Did I know that they were limiting information to me to make me believe something that wasn't true? Yes. Did I know at certain instances that Teller was touching me to distract me and Penn kept saying my name and giving me instructions to keep me focused on the things he wanted to focus my attention on so that I wouldn't pay attention to other things? Yes. Did I know that I was the only one in the room that didn't know the truth? Yes.

So why didn't I say anything? Why didn't I question? Why didn't I call them out?

I didn't want to ruin the trick, for me or for the audience. I wanted to feel the magic, even though I knew it wasn't real. I wanted that sensation of experiencing the wondrous, the unbelievable. I was motivated to play along because I knew that I would learn more through my suspension of disbelief. I was curious to see what happened if I played along.

So what has this taught me about immersive learning?

  • Be honest with your audience, even when you're going to mess with their beliefs. If they know what they are getting into, they are more likely to trust the process. 
  • Yes, people's perception shapes their reality. I got a crash course in how limiting your data skews your ability to come to the best, most logical, conclusion. 
  • You learn more from the process than the outcome. Even when I found out later there were two rings, it didn't matter. The experience taught me about myself and was more important, ultimately, than the mechanics of the trick.
  • Our brains are magical, but they have their limitations. We're just not built to handle multiple stimuli at the same time and so we start practicing selective attention. As learning designers, we sometimes use terms like "cognitive overhead" or "seductive augmentation." These are fancy ways of saying, stop distracting people from the important stuff with attention-sucking stuff that isn't important. Our attention is valuable, design to keep it focused where it should be. 
  • Sometimes people WANT to believe the lie. Yep, I knew they were tricking me. It didn't matter. I wanted to be tricked. 
I had seen Penn & Teller before, when I was in college. Twenty years later, they are still amazing. After the show, they hang out in the lobby, signing autographs and posing for pictures. Teller paid me an amazing compliment (yes, he speaks!) and Penn greeted me by name. It seems that attention thing works both ways. 


  1. That might just be the coolest blog post I've ever read: it's deeply thought-provoking, and I hope it'll inform my own work.

    And, I'm really glad to know I'm not the only person who needs to do the "L" thing with their fingers :D

  2. John, wow...what a compliment! I hope this isn't the first blog post you've ever read ;)

    I should have added: after the show, I was talking about my problem remembering right/left. I offhandedly made the comment, "but I never have that problem when I'm driving." Which totally freaked me out, because if you tell me to turn right or left while I'm driving, I know which way that is without even thinking. I inadvertently uncovered a mental model, or "job aid," that works for me (besides the L thing)! If only I would have figured that out BEFORE the Penn & Teller show...

  3. "I wanted to feel the magic, even though I knew it wasn't real." And then, "Be honest with your audience, even when you're going to mess with their beliefs."

    Reading the first comment, I immediately thought, "the willing suspension of disbelief." Which is how you know I majored in literature, right? (Of course, you described it that way, too, so I'm pretty safe.)

    Your second comment is a statement about interaction and collaboration. So this is one hell of a work-related post.

    The thing with fiction, or with magic acts, is that the audience (the participant, if you will) has to see the suspension as worthwhile. I think it's tempting for a designer--be it instructional or immersive-environment--to add to elaboration that only another designer's going to notice, and that will end up detracting from the experience, or at least adding to the cost without an appropriate benefit.

    Remember, in the early days of online learning, all those office-work simulations where you had to walk up to the building, push the door, press the elevator call button, get in, press a floor button--all so you could get to the Intro to Module 1: The Power of Email?

    That's too much simulation and suspension for the payoff, something Penn and Teller clearly managed to avoid here. Thank you for sharing your experience.