What is Happening to our Attention Spans?
Author: Hanzade Durmusoglu
From: Istanbul, Turkey
I started quarantine with one device in hand, enough to keep me entertained. In two months, I suddenly had two devices that I was somehow actively using at the same time. At the 5 month mark, I was juggling four devices to saturate my hunger for new content every 0.2 seconds. You might think that I’ve decided to put a stop on this addiction/attention span loss or whatever since I’m an amazing goal-oriented person that has all the willpower in the world but no, I did nothing. Eventually the urge of wanting to be surrounded by as many screens as possible faded when I had more stuff on my plate (e.g. school). Though it still made me wonder why and when a significant decrease in my attention span happened. (Granted, there wasn’t much, to begin with, but still.) So I did what had to be done and tried to be focused for a couple of hours and did some research. What is happening to our attention spans? Here is the answer.
Yes, it is Narrowing
A study from researchers at the Technical University of Denmark suggests the global attention span is narrowing due to the amount of information that is presented to the public. The study shows that people now have more things to focus on - but often focus on things for short periods of time. “Content is increasing in volume, which exhausts our attention and our urge for ‘newness’ causes us to collectively switch between topics more regularly,” said Philipp Lorenz-Spreen of Max Planck Institute for Human Development that also participated in the study. “Topics become popular more rapidly, but the interest fades away at a similarly increased rate. This causes narrower spans of collective attention towards individual topics,” he adds. While social media definitely plays a part in this shift (as it does for everything in our lives at this point), it is not all to blame. This trend had started at least a hundred years ago. If you feel incredibly humiliated by having a weaker attention span than one of a goldfish, (which I will be later touching upon) don’t. The next time you hang out with your friends, within coronavirus precautions of course, just try to count the number of times they pick up their phones mid-conversation out of boredom and how fast they swipe between numerous posts. If you have the attention span of a goldfish and can’t focus on anything for a significant amount of time, so does everyone. TikTok is a prime example of this. The longest amount of content you can watch on that application is a minute long. Feeding our urge to see new content as fast as possible and granted, not being helpful about the little attention problem we have here.
No, it is not Narrowing
It is said that the average attention span is down from 12 seconds in the year 2000 to eight seconds now. That is less than the nine-second attention span of your average goldfish. You might’ve seen these stats, well, everywhere. Numerous articles like to belittle humanity by saying our attention span is lesser than one of a goldfish, but it may not be true after all.
In retrospect, the whole ordeal is much less clear and vague than intended. These references in question lead back to a 2015 report by the Consumer Insights team of Microsoft Canada, who surveyed 2,000 Canadians and also studied the brain activity of 112 people as they carried out various tasks.
However, the actual statistics that lead people to believe that we are below a fish in terms of attention spans did not come from Microsoft's research. It appears in the report, but with a citation for another source called Statistic Brain.
Statistic Brain is, as expected, a research institute that brings us “accurate and timely” statistics. They source all their figures too, but they are infuriatingly unclear. “And when I contact the listed sources - the National Center for Biotechnology Information at the US National Library of Medicine, and the Associated Press - neither can find any record of research that backs up the stats.
My attempts to contact Statistic Brain came to nothing too.
I have spoken to various people who dedicate their working lives to studying human attention and they have no idea where the numbers come from either.” says BBC.
"I don't think that's true at all," says Dr Gemma Briggs, a psychology lecturer at the Open University.
"Simply because I don't think that that's something that psychologists or people interested in attention would try and measure and quantify in that way."
She studies attention in drivers and witnesses to crime and says the idea of an "average attention span" is pretty meaningless. "It's very much task-dependent. How much attention we apply to a task will vary depending on what the task demand is."
Although some studies examine specific tasks such as listening to a lecture, the idea that there’s a typical length of time for which people can pay attention to one task has also been debunked.
"How we apply our attention to different tasks depends very much on what the individual brings to that situation," explains Dr Briggs.
Another argument is about the relation between the decrease in lengths of films and our attention spans. But the academic behind that research says all it proves is that film-makers simply got better at keeping the audience interested in their art.
Long story short, the belief that attention spans are measurable and quantitative is a bit illogical and meaningless because the amount of focused time we spend on a task (which is essentially the meaning of “attention span”) is very much determined by the task in hand. Why would I spend 3 focused hours on a task that I could finish in one focused hour? Does being able to finish the task in a shorter amount of time make my attention span weaker?
Goldfish’s Attention Spans
There's something else fishy (pun intended) about those attention span statistics too.
It turns out that there is no evidence that goldfish - or fish in general - have particularly short attention spans or memories, despite what popular culture suggests.
As Prof. Felicity Huntingford, who has spent almost half a century studying fish behaviour says and BBC and I quote,
"Goldfish can perform all the kinds of learning that have been described for mammals and birds and they've become a model system for studying the process of learning and the process of memory formation, exactly because they have a memory and because they learn."
She says there have been hundreds of scientific papers over the decades on goldfish learning and memory. "That a species that's used by neuro-psychologists and scientists as a model for studying memory formation should be the very species that has this reputation - I think that's an interesting irony," she says.
So goldfish don't have short attention spans or memories and even if they do, the reason why they are being studied is that they show exceptional ability in these categories. There is no evidence human attention spans are shrinking.
Is it Narrowing or Not?
This blog’s purpose is not to make you choose a side but to educate you on both sides of the argument. If you ask me which side I’m on though, I’m more on the not-narrowing side. If we go by the fact that our attention spans are task-dependent, there is essentially no such thing called an attention span since we pay different ”amounts” of attention -if it’s even measurable- to different scenarios. They are simply intervals of time we spare for certain activities. It also has a connection with our interests: I could watch a three-hour movie fully concentrated but can’t even sit a 40-minute lecture if it doesn’t pique my interest. Just for the sake of playing the devil’s advocate, even if our attention spans have shrinked, it is not a personal matter since every single aspect of our lives from technology to social media are working to grab your attention. Besides, just because we are now accustomed to consuming diverse content in bits and pieces rather than huge chunks of singular content doesn’t necessarily mean that our attention span has decreased, it’s only adapted itself to our new way of living influenced by the progression of technology.
I hope this helped to clear up the misconceptions about attention spans in general and you no longer feel insecure because you are not able to concentrate for long hours. If you still believe that your attention span has decreased, here are some solutions that may help:
Keep in mind that these are not solutions for a permanent increase in attention span but some helpers when you need a temporary increase or a regain if other factors such as stress or disorders like ADHD keep you from focusing.
Author: Hanzade Durmusoglu
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Global attention span is narrowing and trends don't last as long, study reveals
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Busting the attention span myth
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What Are the Causes of a Short Attention Span, and How Can I Improve It?
M. Lodge, Jason. J. Harrison, William. (March 15, 2019).
The Role of Attention in Learning in the Digital Age