Is our attention span getting shorter or ..... what was I just saying?
Updated: May 27, 2020
In the Pixar movie, Finding Nemo, Ellen Degeneres plays a forgetful fish named Dory, who lives life completely in the now. She forgets everything shortly after she hears it, swimming blissfully ignorant of her past or future. Luckily, Dory runs across a clownfish named Marlon who takes her out of her tiny world and into a much bigger adventure and community of aquatic creatures.
These days, a lot of us are like Dory, going from shiny object to shiny object, expressing joy or disgust, and moving on. It doesn't seem like we're learning much as a society, as chronic problems keep repeating and accumulating. What has to happen for us to finally address our longer term problem? What price do we pay for living the simple Dory lifestyle and pretending not to learn from our mistakes?
The advent of smartphones and the deluge of quick jolts of entertainment they provide has been a huge hit to our attention spans, which have dropped from an average of 12 seconds to about 8.25 seconds, (shorter than that of a goldfish). You are likely reading this on a cell phone right now, and I only have a few seconds to grab your attention so that we can dive together more deeply into what's going on here. We are huge on first impressions as the internet knows, and after just a few seconds of stimulation your mind starts looking for what else might be out there, fighting with the part of your brain that wants to stop and focus on something it wants to learn. FOMO, or fear of missing out, is making our attachments- love, community, friendship, work and spirituality more transient and shallow as we keep getting distracted by the loudest and newest things.
Consider the following:
- A new app named Blinkist claims it can summarize an entire book in about 15 minutes, saving people the trouble of actually reading the book. Audiobook site Audible has a way for people to speed up books to twice as fast so they can get through them faster.
- One of the hottest video sharing apps today is Tik Tok, which limits all videos to only 15 seconds.
- The rise of on-demand viewing promises to uncouple tv scripts from the 30 and 60 minute frameworks that have dominated them since television began. Shows are now shorter and full of more action and less character development, and newcomer Quibi has stories that last only 7 to 10 minutes.
- Popular music is featuring shorter songs, mostly due to the effects of streaming services that pay performers if consumers listen to the song for a minimum of 30 seconds. Not only are songs shorter, but the chorus and hooks to each song come much earlier so as to hit that 30 second threshold.
- Movies are getting shorter because of the demands of movie theaters to maximize ticket sales and cycle new audiences through shorter, more action-packed films. A movie like Gone With the Wind (4 hours) would never be made in the Hollywood of today.
- Commercials, which live or die based on how they hold our attention, are getting shorter. Where in the not too distant past television commercials lasted an average of 30 seconds, now the average is closer to 15 seconds, with the many barely there at 6 seconds.
There are many contributors to the attention span shortage- substance abuse, lack of quality sleep, constant distractions from screens, and lives that are just packed with more activity and information than the brain can safely handle. Millennial and Gen-Y children grew up with the information overload and are better able to navigate it through multitasking, but even they have difficulty sifting down to the most critical, useful, and important things to do every day. Attention deficit hyperactive disorder, (ADHD) which barely existed in the 20th century, has risen as a problem that affects nearly 10% of children, and been a scourge in classrooms around the country.
The human brain is in a constant struggle between the executive functions, which live in the prefrontal cortex, and the limbic system that contains our emotions through such organs as the amygdala and hypothalamus. Every new thing grabs the attention of our emotional brain, which craves fun and fears danger. The executive brain is supposed to guide its emotional counterpart so that important things necessary for survival are sure to happen.
When the emotions win out, short-termism is the result. Short-termism is defined as an excessive focus on short-term results at the expense of long-term interests.
The decline of attention spans lead to more and more short-term thinking. You see it in the business world where large corporations focus on maximizing quarterly earnings while blowing cash on stock buybacks instead of future research and development. It happens in government when politicians only focus on partisan gamesmanship devoted to getting them re-elected rather than any lasting progress on big,societal goals. The news media (with the exception of some newspapers) has figured this out as they pander to our attention spans with short bits of entertainment disguised as news that produces network ratings and mouse clicks, but not true understanding.
Some might think that it's okay for the average individual to have a short-term horizon, as long as their leaders are watching the long-term horizon on their behalf. Unfortunately, the incentives for business, political, and thought leaders are all short-term. They get immediate rewards for telling us what we want to hear, and are punished when they don't. Why on earth would a CEO sacrifice current profits for a project that may or may not help ten years from now? Shareholders would revolt. Why would any politician vote for something that inflicts short-term pain in pursuit of a long term goal? Voters would throw them out of office today.
Most of the most pressing long-term problems that humanity faces: climate change, income inequality, neglected infrastructure, structural deficits, pollution, and unfunded senior citizen entitlements are not fixable with short-term solutions. The are all slow-moving disasters that ask us to think big- something we're not used to doing. Even basic tasks like passing a budget and running elections are causes for partisan bickering, while the clock keeps ticking and the big problems keep getting passed down to the next generation. I finding watching debates so frustrating because each side seems to be content with getting their talking points out, instead of getting to the bottom of what needs to be done.
Luckily, there are plenty of long-term thinkers out there, just not in positions of power. Science gives us wonderful tools to look at data of what was and make projections of what will be. Not perfect predictions, but at least some idea of where we are headed, untethered to any ideology. Now that cell phones and the internet dominate out lives and barrage us with data, we still have the choice to pursue a balance between short-termism and long-termism. Both ways of thinking can be helpful, but the balance is what seems to be lacking today.
In opposition to the Tik Tokkers out there, the internet is loaded with wonderful, longer, instructional videos and courses that can provide valuable information. While shows are getting shorter, viewers are hungering for more plot and character development as they get into bingeing entire seasons for hours at a time. And even as we hop from one person to the next, Facebook gives us the opportunity to re-connect with people from our past, bringing depth and relevance into our relationships.
Some of best things that you can do to combat the attention deficit are mindfulness meditation and goal-setting. Mindfulness is finding the quiet strength inside of yourself that can brush away all of the distractions like buzzing cell phones and constant email. It doesn't require much- just sitting quietly (shutting down ALL distractions) once or twice a day for just a few minutes, while taking a deep breath and reminding yourself you are in charge and making choices.
Goal-setting is the fire that has propelled mankind since hunter-gatherer days. Write down your goals on paper often, because studies have shown that those with written goals make more progress than those who just set goals in their head. By setting goals, you train your brain to start looking for the things that will help you achieve them. Without goals, your brain gets blown away by the currents of life, just as Dory gets thrown around in the ocean. Find partners to share your goals with and keep you motivated. If you must, create a Ulysses pact that commits you to a course of action towards your goal.
Much has been written about goal-setting and mindfulness, and I encourage you to seek out the tons of good information out there. Like Dory, we are here for a reason, and it's our challenge to figure out what that is exactly. Her journey entertained millions of people and made millions of dollars- not bad for a fish. It's time for all of us to tackle some of the neglected problems that have been dumped on us by the past, so that we can take more control of our future.