The great attention debacle.

Can’t focus on one thing at a time? Do you end up doing something else without even doing what you wanted to in the first place? Don’t you worry, because you are definitely not alone. Even writing this blog post without losing my attention is proving to be quite the challenge. I sat down at my computer with the aim of solely doing this blog post, but after not even 10 minutes I was on to job hunting expedition, researching where in Sydney you can see Kangaroos and of course keeping up to date on my Facebook stalking. I think it is fair to say that my attention drifted, and I am not sure why. My homemade theory is that we tend to focus more on our preoccupations rather than the task at hand, especially if the task is something that carries a little bit of pressure.

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There are endless distractions in the physical world around us with smartphones, social media and people when sometimes all we need is ourselves to cause the distraction. Today, a lack of attention seems to be the norm, but it has not just started recently. It has been around since the very beginning.

As this weeks task involves testing the attention of someone else, I went to my trusty family who always seems to be looking at the squirrels running past the window instead of focusing on the task at hand. The dinner table at dinner time is the one time of the day where all technology or any other distractions are taken away so that as a family we can have a somewhat decent conversation. For the most part, there is conversation and all 5 of us are usually engaged somewhat. I thought the best way to test my families attention span at the dinner table was by reintroducing the assumed source of distraction- the smartphones! *cue dramatic music*

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So I set out the experiment in a way that meant that everyone had to put their phones on the table next to their dinner but try to solely focus on the dinner table conversation. To make it more fair, I let everyone choose a topic of their choice so that there would be something interesting for everyone to talk about. At the end of all 5 topics, I was then going to ask each family member to openly ask what everyone had taken in from the multiple conversations.

The experiment lasted around 40 minutes and I think it is fair to say that everyone was watching the squirrels running outside at some point, including myself who seemed to be easily distracted by Facebook notifications and the constant Whatsapp notifications from a Spanish friend throughout the whole 40 minutes. Myself and my 2 brothers seemed to be the most distracted even though not one of us picked up our phones throughout the whole 40 minutes. Our comprehension of all the conversations that we had were quite limited, which surprised me at first. We were only able to recount the parts that were either funny or had some sort of personal interest. After asking my 2 brothers why they think they did not retain as much information, I found out it was because the mere presence of the phone on the table was enough of a distraction in itself. They said that even though they did not receive anything, when the phone is around, they are always expecting something from it in terms of a notification from Facebook or simply a text message.

“According to a new study reported by Associated Press last month, the age of smartphones has left humans with such a short attention span that even a goldfish can hold a thought longer. Some very focused researchers surveyed 2,000 participants in Canada and studied the brain activity of 112 others. The results showed the average human attention span has fallen from 12 seconds in 2000 to eight seconds today. Goldfish, meanwhile, are believed to have an attention span of nine seconds.” (Makin, 2015)

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Makin presents some startling research data showing that apparently the age of smartphones has reduced our actual attention span. But to be honest, I am not that surprised. Just by reflecting on my own behaviour, the smartphone is a big source of distraction for myself personally. From observing the behaviour of my family members to my own behaviour, the more interesting question I would like to ask myself is, how is this affecting our brains?

“Over the past few years researchers have done a lot of work on attention span, and how the brain is being re-sculpted by all those hours a day spent online. One of the conclusions that some of them are coming to is that the online life nurtures fluid intelligence and offline life is better at nurturing crystallizing intelligence.” (Brooks, 2015)

Basically, Brooks says that our online attention nurtures mental agility and our ability to skim ahead and “get the gist”. I agree with this as it is more apparent than ever that our online lives are overflowing with information, therefore we are training our brains to pick out the good bits or only the bits that we want to see. I would like to see where this takes us in the future because maybe it could even lead to a further reduction in our attention spans? Our brains may be shifting in a way that will mean that our memories with be getting shorter, but our brains will be able to process information quicker. It is hard to tell, but it sure is fascinating.

References

http://www.bnd.com/living/magazine/article35782965.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/10/opinion/david-brooks-building-attention-span.html?_r=0

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