Goldfish blues: There’s something fishy about our focus

January 23, 2018

Research published in the Medical Daily suggests the average human attention span now lasts just eight seconds, down from 12 seconds a decade earlier. Goldfish, apparently, have an attention span of nine seconds.

Actually, those numbers are a little fishy. Dr Gemma Briggs, a psychology lecturer at the Open University, told the BBC the idea of an “average attention span” is pretty meaningless.

"[Attention span] is very much task-dependent,” Briggs says. “How much attention we apply to a task will vary depending on what the task demand is."

And there’s actually a substantial body of scientific evidence that shows goldfish have quite good memories and learning capabilities.

Information overload

But there is no doubt we live in a world awash with information: scientists in the United States calculated there are some 300 exabytes of data in existence (that’s 3 followed by 20 zeros). Psychologist and technology expert Martine Oglethorpe from The Modern Parent says our brains are simply being pushed to the limit as we try to take everything in.

“We know that under most conditions the brain cannot complete two complex tasks at the same time.”
Psychologist and technology expert Martine Oglethorpe

“We know that under most conditions the brain cannot complete two complex tasks at the same time,” Oglethorpe says. “So when we have devices that require so much of our attention, obviously there is going to be a degree of impaired concentration.”

In 2013, a US report found that 87 per cent of teachers believe technology is creating an “easily distracted generation with short attention spans”. In a 2014 memo, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella ominously predicted that the scarcest commodity of the near future would be “human attention”.

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The good news is that there are a few things you can do to help yourself concentrate for longer than a goldfish.

Turn off technology
This may be news for some of us, but our devices do have an “off” switch – and using it could be the ticket to concentrating more easily. “We must try to shut down all other distractions to get a task done more efficiently and with greater accuracy,” says Oglethorpe. “Turning off all notifications on a phone is a good start. Turning the device off is even better.”

Look after your wellbeing
Research has found that it’s particularly hard to concentrate when you’re dehydrated or don’t move your body regularly. Looking after your body is also looking after your brain, so drink plenty of water and exercise regularly. Oh, and when exercising, leave your devices at home.

Move with the times
If this shorter attention span is the new reality of our world, perhaps we need to make some changes to allow for it. “We need to look at how we can take greater control of how we use devices, because we can rest assured they are not going anywhere soon,” says Oglethorpe. “There are also third-party apps that can ensure your access to social media and the like is turned off at different times of the day or for periods when greater concentration is needed.”

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