Fishy Thoughts


Nat PostCanadians, the headline reads, now have shorter attention span than goldfish thanks to portable devices. The story in today’s National Post underscores a growing problem that is fuelled by technology: our dwindling attention spans.

The Microsoft study of 2,000 Canadians found our collective attention span has dwindled to a mere eight seconds, down from an already embarrassing 12 seconds a similar study found back in the year 2000.

Goldfish have an average nine second attention span.

Eight seconds! How can you read a newspaper article, let alone a novel, with such a short attention span? How can you write or create anything of consequence with your mind flitting about like that?

The Ottawa Citizen quoted from the report:

“Canadians with more digital lifestyles (those who consume more media, are multi-screeners, social media enthusiasts, or earlier adopters of technology) struggle to focus in environments where prolonged attention is needed.”

Which explains why distracted driving – drivers on cell phones or texting at the wheel – is fast growing to be the number one cause of accidents and fatalities. Yet every day I walk my dogs or when we walk downtown, I see someone talking on the cell phone or texting while driving. Every day.

It also explains why many people fall for conspiracy theories, religious cults, advertising scams or the diaphanous piffle of local bloggers: they don’t have the attention span required to do the critical analysis of what is presented. They’re thinking less because they’re too easily distracted by the …. oooh! shiny!

While some temporary ways to alleviate the problem – although not cure it – have been touted – dark chocolate, coffee , working at a treadmill desk, meditation and the Mediterranean diet among them – none of them deal with the basic problem: our behaviour. We exhibit addictive behaviour with technology: we check our phones, our email, our Facebook and Twitter feeds compulsively.

We can multitask better than ever before, the study found, but only in very short spurts.

A related story published earlier this month on the BBC website found:

Professor Gloria Mark of the Department of Informatics at the University of California says email, social media, notifications and countless other digital distractions are eroding our ability to concentrate on individual tasks in the 21st Century.
“Back in 2004 we followed American information workers around with stopwatches and timed every action,” she says.
“They switched their attention every three minutes on average. In 2012, we found that the time spent on one computer screen before switching to another computer screen was one minute 15 seconds.
“By the summer of 2014 it was an average of 59.5 seconds.”

Of course, it’s not just mobile phones or the internet that’s doing this. Researchers have found that TV and video games contribute significantly to our dwindling ability to pay attention. The best cure for TV is, of course, reading and your local library is waiting to help.

So why does it matter if we can pay attention? Well paying attention is related to working memory which is related to intelligence. If you can’t keep a lot of things in your mind, you cannot assess all the information coming at you. You can’t properly understand how the world works because you can’t hold in your brain all its gears and cogs. That makes people gullible to the ads, the scams, the trolls, political campaigns, conspiracies, biased reporting and bloggers.

As researchers explained in 2010 paper in American Psychologist:

Over the last two decades, many researchers have noted that working memory and fluid intelligence… are highly related concepts. Working memory is the active processing system that simultaneously stores and manipulates relevant information, often in the face of distracting or competing information or the need to inhibit incorrect responses… The predominant model of working memory posits verbal, visuospatial, and episodic memory as three subsystems that are coordinated by an executive that is often conceptualized as attentional control.

As described in an article in Psychology Today:

The ability to control your focus of attention is very valuable in a range of areas of life. At school, students need to focus to learn. Working memory, the ability to keep several relevant pieces of information in mind at once, is closely related to the ability to control your attentional focus (link is external) and is key to effective performance in many jobs. Computer programmers need to hold several subroutines in mind to understand how the new software they are developing will fit together. Interviewers need to hold together the different things that a job candidate says to detect themes and inconsistencies. Scientists need to keep the different components of a new theory in mind to see how they interact to make predictions.

Coincidentally, I also came across a humourous article in the New Yorker today titled, Earth Endangered by New Strain of Fact-Resistant Humans. It opens:

Scientists have discovered a powerful new strain of fact-resistant humans who are threatening the ability of Earth to sustain life, a sobering new study reports.
The research, conducted by the University of Minnesota, identifies a virulent strain of humans who are virtually immune to any form of verifiable knowledge, leaving scientists at a loss as to how to combat them.

If I hadn’t been aware it was a satire, I would have thought it was a commentary on the local political scene, especially when you read the comment, “As facts have multiplied, their defenses against those facts have only grown more powerful.”

But it’s actually a comment on general ignorance, the sort of willful stupidity that characterizes so much of our daily existence and interactions, our politics and our beliefs, ranging from climate change deniers to creationists to religious fundamentalists and on to conspiracy theorists and anti-vaccination crusaders.

It is, sadly, due in part to our dwindling attention spans as mentioned above. But not entirely. I think it’s also due in part of our culture’s growing intellectual laziness and willful ignorance. As I’ve written in the past, anti-intellectualism is the new elitism. None of this bodes well for our future on any level.

Goldfish, it seems, may emerge as the smartest creatures in the room. Maybe they will run for office sometime in the near future. They’re certainly brighter than a few bloggers and politicians I know.*


* An eight-second attention span explains why some members of council ask the same question that another councillor just asked and was answered by staff only a few moments earlier…

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