The Science of Orienting Response: What Is It About Media That Engages Learners?

Dog TVWhat is it about media that captivates people?  How should I be using more media (or less media) in my instruction?  At what times?  For what purposes?  Here’s some amazing research I bumped into this week that answers those very questions.  The science behind learner engagement, regarding media use, goes all the way back to a Pavlovian concept called, “orienting response.”

Grabbing Your Attention
What is it about TV that has such a hold on us? In part, the attraction seems to spring from our biological “orienting response.” First described by Ivan Pavlov in 1927, the orienting response is our instinctive visual or auditory reaction to any sudden or novel stimulus. It is part of our evolutionary heritage, a built-in sensitivity to movement and potential predatory threats. Typical orienting reactions include dilation of the blood vessels to the brain, slowing of the heart, and constriction of blood vessels to major muscle groups. Alpha waves are blocked for a few seconds before returning to their baseline level, which is determined by the general level of mental arousal. The brain focuses its attention on gathering more information while the rest of the body quiets.

In 1986 Byron Reeves of Stanford University, Esther Thorson of the University of Missouri and their colleagues began to study whether the simple formal features of television–cuts, edits, zooms, pans, sudden noises–activate the orienting response, thereby keeping attention on the screen. By watching how brain waves were affected by formal features, the researchers concluded that these stylistic tricks can indeed trigger involuntary responses and “derive their attentional value through the evolutionary significance of detecting movement…. It is the form, not the content, of television that is unique.”

The orienting response may partly explain common viewer remarks such as: “If a television is on, I just can’t keep my eyes off it,” “I don’t want to watch as much as I do, but I can’t help it,” and “I feel hypnotized when I watch television.” In the years since Reeves and Thorson published their pioneering work, researchers have delved deeper. Annie Lang’s research team at Indiana University has shown that heart rate decreases for four to six seconds after an orienting stimulus. In ads, action sequences and music videos, formal features frequently come at a rate of one per second, thus activating the orienting response continuously.

Lang and her colleagues have also investigated whether formal features affect people’s memory of what they have seen. In one of their studies, participants watched a program and then filled out a score sheet. Increasing the frequency of edits–defined here as a change from one camera angle to another in the same visual scene–improved memory recognition, presumably because it focused attention on the screen. Increasing the frequency of cuts–changes to a new visual scene–had a similar effect but only up to a point. If the number of cuts exceeded 10 in two minutes, recognition dropped off sharply.
Producers of educational television for children have found that formal features can help learning. But increasing
the rate of cuts and edits eventually overloads the brain. Music videos and commercials that use rapid intercutting
of unrelated scenes are designed to hold attention more than they are to convey information. People may
remember the name of the product or band, but the details of the ad itself float in one ear and out the other. The
orienting response is overworked. Viewers still attend to the screen, but they feel tired and worn out, with little
compensating psychological reward. Our ESM findings show much the same thing.

Sometimes the memory of the product is very subtle. Many ads today are deliberately oblique: they have an
engaging story line, but it is hard to tell what they are trying to sell. Afterward you may not remember the product
consciously. Yet advertisers believe that if they have gotten your attention, when you later go to the store you will
feel better or more comfortable with a given product because you have a vague recollection of having heard of it.
The natural attraction to television’s sound and light starts very early in life. Dafna Lemish of Tel Aviv University
has described babies at six to eight weeks attending to television. We have observed slightly older infants who,
when lying on their backs on the floor, crane their necks around 180 degrees to catch what light through yonder
window breaks. This inclination suggests how deeply rooted the orienting response is.

Lessons for educators:

  • Learners will zone out regularly through a lecture.  It is important to plan for this by preparing to activate their orienting responses.
  • Media grabs attention.  But it’s not video clips, or film media in general, that captures learners’ attention–it’s “formal features.”
  • “Formal features” in media (cuts, edits, zooms, pans, sudden noises) are what activate orienting response.
  • Alternatives to film-based formal features to gain attention include: a hand clap, a special mouth noise, disappearing/reappearing, showing a picture for only a second, throwing something, etc.  (It’s a good idea to throw some of these into your lesson plan to counteract anticipated lulls.)
  • Messages aren’t retained when you overwork the learner’s orienting response by showing more than 10 formal features/second.  (e.g. some ads, action sequences, and music videos.)  If you just want to capture attention (said no educator ever), go nuts with formal features.

Tips on how to film an engaging interview:

  • Bring two cameras.  Increasing the frequency of edits–defined here as a change from one camera angle to another in the same visual scene–improved memory recognition, presumably because it focused end users’ attention on the screen.
  • In pre-production, remember to include multiple scenes in your storyboard (even if they are just text graphics/animations).  Increasing the frequency of cuts–changes to a new visual scene–had a similar effect to increasing the frequency of edits, but only up to a point. (I wonder if reusing scenes makes a difference.)

About bryantanner

I'm obsessed with learning via the appropriate technology. My professional mission is to effectively deliver instruction to learners in a way that yields the greatest results for all stakeholders involved.
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