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3. Attention: Hacks 34–43 > 42. The Brain Punishes Features that Cry Wolf

The Brain Punishes Features that Cry Wolf

The act of focusing on just one object goes hand in hand with actively suppressing everything you have to ignore. This suppression persists across time, in a phenomenon called negative priming.

In the story “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” the young shepherd repeatedly claims a wolf has come to attack his flock. There’s no wolf there. The boy just enjoys seeing all the villagers run up the hill, coming to save him and the sheep. The villagers, naturally, get a bit annoyed at getting panicked and trying to scare off the nonexistent wolf, so when they hear the boy cry, “Wolf!” again in the middle of the night, they don’t bother getting up. But this time there is a wolf. Oh dear. I could say the boy learns his lesson, but he doesn’t: he gets eaten. Morality tale, very sad, etc.


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