Attention can be defined as awareness, observation, focus or concentration. It can also be defined as mindfulness or consciousness. The ability to notice or heed something is attentiveness. Attention span is not the same though. Attention span is an amount of time a person can concentrate or focus on a task without getting distracted. It should be noted that attention span is ‘an’ and not ‘the’ amount of time. A person does not have a fixed attention span. It varies depending on the task, how interesting it is, the level of commitment or dedication at the given point in the time and the presence or absence of distraction that can disrupt the focus or concentration. This is true for people of all ages. It is obvious that attention span varies from one person to another. However, it is clear as day that the average attention span has been waning in recent years.
The Science of Attention
There are two types of attention. These are transient attention and selective sustained attention. The latter is also called focused attention. Transient attention is a response to a particular stimulus at a given time. This type of attention span is short. One may get just as easily distracted from the stimulus as one was attracted by it in the first place. Transient attention span has one similarity with selective sustained attention or focused attention. Both vary extensively in an individual and also among all people. Attention span is not unique to humans. All animals have varying attention spans.
Selective sustained attention or focused attention is the concentration level and its consistency over a period of time while working on something. It is this attention span that determines how long one can stay focused on a task and complete it the way one would ideally want. Selective sustained attention span is shrinking, so is transient attention span. Since both these types of attention rely on the strength of the attraction of a stimulus against the distractions around, they are invariably vulnerable to the various merits and demerits of contemporary lifestyles.
While empirical evidence is found relatively lacking to accurately peg the average attention span in kids or adults, it is widely accepted that most people aged fourteen to fifteen and above can spend up to twenty minutes working on something with unfailing focus. Some people can stay at it for hours but those are exceptions. This is why we have fewer inventors, scientists, scholars and athletes among others in proportion to the global population. Transient attention span was estimated to be around twelve seconds at the turn of the century. It is now estimated to be around eight seconds now.
Loss of attention does not directly mean there is a shorter attention span. People can get distracted and refocus again in some time. It is usually deemed healthy to take a break and resume the task with greater concentration. Transient attention is mostly influenced by the abruptness of the stimulus and if it is a little beyond ordinary. The stimulus cannot be mundane as that would not distract people. Selective sustained attention has more to do with the level of interest a person has in a particular task or how committed the person is to achieve the preset objective.
Selective sustained attention span has traditionally been enhanced with age. Infants or toddlers have shorter attention spans than teenagers, who have shorter selective sustained attention spans than young adults and middle aged people or older people have the longest attention spans. This proportionate increase is not a given right now and it is our lifestyles that are the primary problem.
There are tests to measure sustained attention and transient attention. DeGangi’s Test of Attention in Infants, Continuous Performance Test, Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children-IV and Porteus Maze Test are some examples, albeit a few have been discontinued in recent times. There have been many studies conducted over the years to assess the average attention span of children, teenagers, young adults, middle aged people and the elderly. Some have been aimed at understanding attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, learning disorders and memory loss or dementia among other conditions. Some have been generic to find out more about average attention spans.
There was a study that assessed the impact of television on young children. When infants, toddlers and young kids are exposed to television, they tend to be more inattentive and impulsive as they grow up. They are more unorganized and they tend to be easily distracted. There have been similar studies focusing on children who get exposed to smartphones, tablets, video games and the internet. These have an adverse impact on the ability to concentrate.
Neil Postman has written in “Amusing Ourselves to Death” that modern technology including television and internet have shrunk the attention spans of humans. He illustrated that internet users generally spend less than a minute browsing a website. Roger Ebert had once written about the impact of technology on attention span. He had cited a study conducted by UCLA Professor Nicholas Carr who used MRI scans to observe activities of the brain of six volunteers. Three of them were veterans of web user and three were not. The web veterans had distinctive neural pathways. This indicates actual cognitive changes in the brain caused or facilitated by modern lifestyles. It is not just about perceived attention span, speculation or what we understand as is happening. There is a distinct physiological and psychological impact that is quantifiable.
Diminishing Attention Span in the Era of Instant Gratification
Modern living has had an adverse effect on attention span. There are many experts including psychologists and educators who agree that average transient attention spans have declined from twelve seconds at the turn of the century to around eight or fewer seconds right now. There was a report published by Microsoft Canada through its Consumer Insights department. The report cited a finding of Statistic Brain. The same source has been used as the basis of many published reports in the Time, USA Today, the Telegraph, the New York Times, the Guardian and the National Post among others. Academics from Harvard have gone on record to state that our attention span, both transient and selective sustained, have indeed been seriously diminished.
It is not difficult to understand why our attention span is diminishing. We live in an era of instant gratification. We want movies to be thrilling every moment of its runtime. We expect every page of a book to be emotionally rewarding. We do not have the patience or the intent to read a long article running into three thousand words. People are not interested in details. Most people do not get drawn into the substance and is content with reading headlines. In the era of click-bait and instant gratification on social media, it is hard not to imagine how our attention span has taken a hit.
People get distracted by their phones all the time. Every new post or shared photo, comment or like distracts us. There are work related emails, calls and texts, all of which add to the distractions. There are new videos to watch. Media organizations are not helping with their constant onslaught of all kinds of contents that people would like to check out. There is enough gossip for those who have a keen interest in the world of entertainment. There is enough hullaballoo, at times deserving and on other occasions concocted, for those politically affiliated or just interested. No matter who you are, how old you are and what you do, there is enough online and offline in our times to keep you distracted and this does not help our attention span, either transient or sustained.
Simple but Effective Tips to Restore your Attention Span
Your attention span is not completely vulnerable or helpless to distractions. You can regain control of your mind and determine your own transient and selective sustained attention spans. Distraction is partly influenced by an external stimulus and partly by a wandering mind. If you can prevent your mind from wandering, which is an uphill battle but possible to win, you can effectively remain unresponsive to distractions that you do not wish to heed. Here are some simple but effective tips to restore your attention span.
• Meditation is easily one of the most effective exercises for the mind. Do not confuse meditation with the ancient yogic tradition in some civilizations. Meditation does not have to be religious or spiritual. It does not have to be about seeking enlightenment. Meditation is basically training your mind and body to remain focused. It is a cognitive and a physical exercise. You need to practice patience and physical steadiness so you can calm your mind and allow your cognition to be in your control. There are many approaches to meditation. You can choose any approach that suits you and make it a regular habit. You can meditate alone or in a group. You can do so at a yoga studio or at home. You may meditate by the sea or even at a neighborhood park if you want.
• Exercise is the second best remedy for decreasing attention span. Exercising anywhere from twenty minutes to more than an hour can do wonders for your mind, not to forget the precious benefits for your health. You would lose weight, avert a plethora of diseases and you will have much longer attention span than lesser mortals. Exercise demands focus. Even if you use music or some external motivation to keep exercising, you are effectively training your mind to stay put on completing a task. This has immediate short term and long term effects. You will find your mind to be much calmer and more focused after you exercise, similar to how you would feel after a session of meditation if you do it properly.
• You must have a healthy lifestyle. Eat nutritious meals and drink plenty of water. While we can rightfully blame technology and our modern lifestyles for reducing attention span, our preferred foods and beverages are also facilitators. Foods and beverages that cause a spike in blood pressure and blood glucose, those that are high in fats and salts, lack of sufficient water and indulging in smoking as well as alcohol can have an adverse effect on our attention span. The effects are worsened when we do not take any corrective step.
• Restore the natural inquisitiveness of your mind. The human mind is curious and you need to keep fueling it so it remains active. You must ask questions, explore something that interests you, try to learn more about anything that draws you and then satiate your quest. The more you exercise your mind, the more attentive you would be. Millions of people spend hours every day doing nothing and simply consuming what is given to them. This leads to a reactive or an idle mind. An active mind is not a consumer but a seeker.
• Use stimuli that improve your attention span. Some people love reading books and it helps. Some people listen to music. Some people like interesting discussions or chats with friends. Any activity that stimulates your brain without stressing it and you can sustain your attention for longer periods of time is worthwhile.
• Finally, stay away from the common distractions. Schedule your free time or even when you are at work to predetermine when you would check your phone, how long you would be on social media, whether or not you should put your phone on silent and turn off the computer, avoid television before sleep and other distractions that would invariably and adversely affect your attention span.
•If nothing else works, go on an information detox. Your brain is bombarded with useless information day in and day out. It’s easy to be overwhelmed living like this. This is when you need to go an information detox. Start on the weekend or when you know your day won’t be affected with minimal social media. Switch off the phone if it helps. Slowly, increase the duration of this detox. Guaranteed you’ll feel like a different person after just one day. Learn to be alone with your mind and do some introspection. It’s really good for your mental health.
•Procrastination can be a big problem when it comes to personal developments. Read how to overcome it here.
•Finally, there is the NUCLEAR option: Go completely off the grid for a week! Granted, it’s easier said than done. But if your find yourself reaching out for that phone every time it vibrates or are unable to get out of bed or go to bed without watching a few videos on YouTube, then this might be the only option at your disposal.
Correlation between Attention Span and Memory
We have different types of memory. Some are old and hence long term, some are short term and a part of our cognitive ability is working memory. Reducing attention span adversely affects memory. Since you are not paying attention and are suffering from lack of concentration or focus, your mind is not recording the experience the way it is supposed to. Hence, you are not creating a memory that would be well preserved and hence recollected later. Reducing attention span is the primary reason why more people are developing poor recent memory.