The brain’s dwindiling attention span

Published 5:40 pm Sunday, September 23, 2018

The average human’s attention span is…oh look, a bird!

Has that happened to you? As your brain began the activity of saying something to someone, it interrupts itself to tell your audience about the bird. Have you ever been writing and had an interruption? When you returned to the writing, did you have trouble remembering the words that were lost in the interruption?

Time out for a definition of attention span: “the length of time during which one (such as an individual or a group) is able to concentrate or remain interested.”

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Stacking old LP’s records to donate to Salvation Army, I more than once came across records that meant a great deal to me in the past. Several times I would stop my sorting and play the platter. Louis Armstrong from 1953 was still a fascinating voice.

It is not unusual in working on this keyboard to be distracted by the beep that tells me a new email or text message has arrived.

The truth is that attention spans have grown shorter with time.

Microsoft paid for a study in Canada that studied the brain activity of 2,000 subjects. One result of all those electroencephalograms was the conclusion that the average attention span dropped from 12 seconds (in a 2000 study) to eight seconds.

One conclusion the study pointed out was that our ability to multitask has drastically improved in the mobile age. More about that in a moment.

Here is what the survey said: “The survey also confirmed generational differences for mobile use; for example, 77 percent of people aged 18 to 24 responded “yes” when asked, “When nothing is occupying my attention, the first thing I do is reach for my phone,” compared with only 10 percent of those over the age of 65.”

Digressing from reading that, I looked for information about children and the digital world. Most of the things I found hinted strongly that excessive use of digital devices actually brings on ADHD, with scan brain images to make the case.

A number of online sites suggested why the conclusion that attention spans are decreasing in time: Attention spans have shrunk by 50 percent over the past decade. Children diagnosed with ADHD: 9.5 percent. Stress: 18 percent. Decision Overload: 17 percent. Percentage of teens who forget major details: 25 percent. Percentage of people who forget their own birthday: 7 percent.

Average number of times per hour an office worker checks their email: 30.

As with most problems — you very well may not see dwindling attention spans as a problem — suggestions for handling it with children are easy to find.

One is to limit the time a child spends on a smartphone, computer or watching tv. Make the bedroom a stimulus-free zone. Information-heavy environments stimulate the child’s brain instead of calming it for better sleep.

Nowadays, kids want immediate satisfaction, and when they don’t get it, they lose focus and attention, and grow impatient.

The findings that our digital world has increased our multi-tasking in a positive way are offset by other research.

A University of London study suggested what they’d expect if they had smoked marijuana or stayed up all night. IQ drops of 15 points for multitasking men lowered their scores to the average range of an 8-year-old child.

According to some scientists, the age of smartphones has left humans with such a short attention span even a goldfish can hold a thought for longer.

After reading this analysis, I immediately went off on a wild tangent, trying to visualize just how the attention span of a goldfish is determined to be nine seconds compared with a human span of eight seconds.

Well, I see that the red light on the coffee brewer is blinking. And I’ve already missed one text message while cobbling together these words.

Your assignment, should you accept it, is to pay attention (what little you have) to whatever task you start now.

T.J. Ray is a retired professor of English at Ole Miss.