Lights On, Nobody Home

Seven Ways to Preach a Lousy Sermon is an article by Pastor Ken Collins.  He talks about the attention span of a congregation.  He puts it like this:

“You don’t need to put your watch on the pulpit to see if your sermon is too long—just watch the congregation. How many people are looking at their watches? How many are staring out the window? How many are passing notes? How many are fidgeting and restless? If you’ve lost your audience, you might as well cut your losses, close up shop, and try again next week. You won’t recover by talking more.”

The trouble is, Pastor Ken Collins is an optimist.  Because even the people looking at you may not be paying attention.

In a previous blog I used the cockpit of Concorde to illustrate the multiple signals and inputs, external as well as internal, which can distract our attention.  But you might think that somebody who is looking straight at you – as opposed to rummaging in their handbag or replying to a text – is listening to you.  In the same way that somebody who is looking at the page of a book, or staring at a screen, is surely concentrating on what’s in front of them.

Not true, unfortunately.  They might be LONH – Lights On, Nobody Home.

Cognitive neuroscience has confirmed – including through the use of functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) – exactly what everybody who’s sat through a sermon, lecture or meeting has always suspected:

  • Whilst looking straight ahead, you can actually be focusing mentally on something in the periphery of your vision – in other words, the corner of your eye can be the centre of your attention. This is known as covert orienting.

The Default Mode Network (DMN) is a set of locations in the brain which activate together.  Collectively, they are a dead giveaway.  When these neurons start firing, it means that you have switched off your external attention – or left it in standby “watch out for leopards” mode, anyway – and started thinking about something entirely different and internal.

In a paper on, Xiaoxiao, Hong and Xu put it like this:

The DMN is typically deactivated during tasks requiring externally-oriented attention and activated during passive rest states or internally-oriented mental processes, such as autobiographical memory, theory of mind, self-referential processing and future thinking.

“I wasn’t daydreaming, sir – I was engaged in self-referential processing.”


So science has now confirmed the “Lights On, Nobody Home” syndrome.  Or maybe it’s “Lights On, But They’re Out In The Back Garden and Won’t Hear the Doorbell” syndrome.

Put together with what we already know about distractions, this becomes not just a problem for Pastors and Priests, who may need to reduce their estimates of their congregations’ attention spans.  This also becomes a problem for trainers, lecturers, learning designers and the rest of the gang.

There are two solutions I can see.

Solution One: we invent a new piece of kit for the classroom or lecture theatre.  Let’s call it a DMNometer, or possibly DeMoNometer – that’s definitely catchier – a “demonometer” to measure the demons of inattention.  All learners wear fMRI headsets.  These are unobtrusive and come in a range of pastel colours.  The headsets connect to a large electronic scoreboard at the back of the room, where the lecturer or trainer can see, rather like the trading floor in the New York Stock Exchange, live fluctuations in the levels of DMN activation.  When you see that a critical mass of learners have hit the DMN zone, you know it’s time for a break, or some small group work, or an activity, or a hymn.

Solution Two: just assume that you need to keep it really short.  Really, really short.


image credit: Sean MacEntee



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