Are we really less focused than goldfish?

According to a Microsoft Corporation research report, goldfish now have a better attention span than humans. I watched a few unrelated YouTube videos and replied to a few WhatsApp messages while in the process of writing this article, so perhaps these researchers are on to something.

It is believed that our constant interaction with the instantaneous nature of modern technology has been a strong factor in shortening the average attention span from 12 seconds to 8. As the use of digital devices expands to, and gradually saturates more domains of our lives, our attention is increasingly divided.

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Is it something to stress about? 

However, according to an article by The Conversation, it is nothing really to fret about. Our brains are adaptive mechanisms that are designed to readjust and adapt their abilities to their environment. In fact, our cognitive abilities differ throughout the day. So far, there is no evidence that shows that our interactions with technology will hamper our cognitive abilities whatsoever. In fact, research has shown that our abilities to multi-task has improved.

“The average person shifts their attention between their smartphone, tablet and laptop 21 times in an hour. This suggests the human attention span is smaller due to the growing presence of these gadgets. The desire to be constantly connected can compromise attention but in exchange for being better multitaskers” – Lizette Borreli, MedicalDaily.com

The extent to which technology is actually compromising our attentional abilities has not yet been proven. There have been results that contest this theory. Research have shown the habitual video gamers have better attention spans than non-gamers. Additionally, when non-gamers started playing, their attentional skill improved.

Attention is considered to be an infamously “awkward phenomenon” to study, and the research methods involved have a big impact on the yielding results. The results from the Microsoft Corporation were obtained by collecting data from 2000 Canadians over the age of 18. Additionally, using electroencephalograms (EEGs), researchers monitored 100 participants’ brain activity while they utilised digital media and performed a variety of activities across technological devices.

The relationship between technology and ADHD

One of the main concerns around the relationship with technology and our seemingly diminishing attention spans is whether it has led to an increase in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), especially in the cases of children. The increased amount of time a child sits in front of screens is believed to contributing to their chances of having ADHD. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, diagnoses have increased by 3% a year since 1997.  Overstimulation is considered to be possible cause of ADHD. However, in a Korean study that looked at the correlation between ADHD and internet addiction theorises that the overstimulation of digital media “may fit the cognitive style of ADHD very well”. It is a classic chicken-and-egg situation: which came first, ADHD or internet addiction?

Another complexity to this debate is the increased awareness of this disorder. In some circles, ADHD is still being debated as a possible faux disorder. Are there more cases of ADHD in the 21st century because of our multi-tasking lifestyles, or are we increasingly acknowledging it as a disorder and diagnosing more people with ADHD? Is it possible that both options are true to certain extents?

How critical do we need to be about existing studies?

An additional concern may be trying to keep control of our attention when advertisers are fiercely competing against each other for it. The Microsoft study that I mentioned before was conducted with the sole aim of finding out how creative advertising companies need to be in order to catch (and maintain) our attention as we scroll through our timelines. Is technology to blame for being easily distracted, or is advertising companies that utilise it?

“But now, more than ever, our environment is made by those who either want our attention or want to sell access to it” – Martin Thirkettle & Graham Pike, The Conversation.

If a decreased attention span is still a concern to you, try out these cognition apps to train your brain’s abilities and track your progress

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