How long do you think you can concentrate for? 5 minutes? 30 seconds? 5 seconds? The good news is that if you are still reading this, your attention span exceeds that of the average adult, which is just 8 seconds according to Microsoft. The bad news is that our inability to focus for more than two and a half cat videos may be due to our beloved smartphones. What sort of implications could this have for us, and our society as a whole?
Attention is a fickle friend. It is a partly uncontrollable by-product of our evolutionary make-up, with a penchant for pretty, shiny things regardless of their importance to the task at hand. In the past, our ability to hone in on particular stimuli, like saber-toothed tigers on the prowl for a human sandwich, was an invaluable cognitive weapon in our survival toolkit. Today, attention, or “focus,” proves itself more useful in terms of maximising our productive and creative output.
Like all valuable commodities, attention is a limited resource, hence the appropriateness of the phrase “to pay attention”.
Like all valuable commodities, attention is a limited resource, hence the appropriateness of the phrase “to pay attention.” Shining our spotlight of attention on one thing inevitably leaves other stimuli in perceptual darkness. This is known in psychology as “inattentional blindness.” If you, like many people, believe you are immune to this, search “selective attention test” on YouTube and prepare to admit defeat.
Our attention’s nemesis? Distraction: known to hijack our clever cognitive system to defend us in times of emergency. Kieran Mohr, a Neuroscience PhD student in UCD, explains, “It is not specific to 2018 that our minds ceaselessly wander when we are trying to focus on a particular task. Where I think technology comes into play here is that it has opened the avenue to a wide range of potential targets for attention always being present.” Understanding this addictive nature of social media and other modern technologies is essential if we are to resist this trap. This is best done by educating oneself on how addictive cycles are formed, and how they are deeply engrained into platforms such as Facebook and Snapchat.
We are fallible though. In an age of information overload, it is somewhat inevitable that we will click on that app just to clear that annoying little red notification. If this habit is let spiral out of control, it can result in wasted time and mental resources. “Decision overload” is another unfavourable consequence of constant distractions. Neuroscientists identify this as being caused by the effortful process of deciding what to ignore and what to attend to. This is an activity one engages in every time they scroll through their social media feed. The overload can lead us to making poor decisions as we are in a cognitive deficit.
Binge-watching may result in momentary delight, but overall this compulsive behaviour leads to reduced levels of happiness and leaves us with an insatiable craving for more.
This inability to resist entertaining distractions, coupled with technologies like Netflix, may also impinge on our enjoyment of TV shows. It has been empirically proven that binge watching TV series not only reduces our long-term recall of the show, but also reduces our enjoyment in the moment. The reason for this is that delayed gratification is negated in favour of instant and easy satisfaction. Binge watching may result in momentary delight, but overall this compulsive behaviour leads to reduced levels of happiness and leaves us with an insatiable craving for more. As Mohr notes, “Our minds are quite bad at giving long-term returns the weighting that they should be given.” A fact any student who has submitted an assignment late can testify to!
Distractions often masquerade under the guise of multi-tasking. However, this is more of a fragmentation than a multiplication of attention. According to a study published by Stanford researchers, practicing multitasking regularly in fact makes us “more susceptible to interference from irrelevant environmental stimuli and from irrelevant representations in memory.”
Dr Áine Ní Choisdealbha of UCD’s School of Psychology makes another interesting point; that the efficiency of multi-tasking depends on the nature of what is being undertaken. “Human cognitive processes can be grouped into two types. One type is fast, automatic, and habitual, and related to tasks that are familiar to us, and involve recognition and repetition. The other type of cognitive process is more analytic and deliberate. [The latter] tasks often involve taking on new information, holding it in memory, and doing something with that information. Our “working memory” – our ability to keep information in mind while we use it – is limited, so multitasking is only going to make these kinds of task more difficult.” Even if automatic tasks lend themselves to multitasking, the cost of switching between tasks, regardless of difficulty, can in itself reduce productivity. In his book “The Organized Mind,” professor of psychology Dr Daniel Levitin emphasizes that “It takes more energy to shift your attention from task to task. It takes less energy to focus.”
Even if automatic tasks lend themselves to multitasking, the cost of switching between tasks, regardless of difficulty, can in itself reduce productivity.
In order to help ourselves in this modern era of pings and notifications, we must equip ourselves to deal effectively with unnecessary distractions. Some common-sense recommendations Dr Ní Choisdealbha suggests are ridding work environments of external distractions and taking regular breaks. She also emphasizes the need to remain sceptical about unproven aids such as attention-enhancing drugs. Mohr suggests that we be mindful of our use of technologies. This point of view reflects the growing body of scientific research praising the benefits of meditation and other mindful practices.
Hopefully, these findings will save us from becoming slaves to the distractions of our smartphones. Perhaps the first step to regaining control of our attention is realizing that the power is within our hands.