The Benefits of a Short Attention Span

Science
Illustration: woman looking at phone

Luci Gutiérrez

Our supposedly shrinking attention spans are a hot topic these days—as you may have seen on TV or heard on a podcast or read on Twitter or glimpsed on your watch or else just intuited from the antsy melancholy of those few unbearable minutes each morning between when you open your eyes and when you first reach for your phone.

Emblematic of the genre is a 2015 Microsoft report that claimed the average human attention span had shrunk from 12 seconds in 2000 to eight seconds in 2013 (even shorter than the nine seconds of focus maintained by the notoriously distractible goldfish), presumably on its way to zero. [1]

Yes, this sort of alarmism is as old as the hills. An 1897 article in The American Electrician worried that a growing dependence on the telephone would turn us all into “transparent heaps of jelly.” But while the notion of addiction to our smartphones (the most usual suspects in the current attention crisis) is contested, numerous studies have found that compulsive phone use can lead to separation anxiety, chronic fear of missing out, and a painful thumb condition known as de Quervain’s tenosynovitis—signs worrying enough that we can’t rule out the eventual jellification of humanity. [2]

Curiously, our bond with our phones persists even when they are doing literally nothing. Researchers in Paris observed that 37 percent of women and 30 percent of men walking by themselves held in their hand a smartphone they weren’t using. (Pairs of men and women held phones as they walked only 18 percent of the time, suggesting that we can still capture each other’s attention on occasion.) [3]

Yet blaming smartphones for our distractibility feels too easy—human attention has always been fleeting. A study conducted several years before the first iPhone was unveiled found that workers spent an average of just two minutes using a particular tool or document before switching to another. [4] Moreover, interruptions may have a silver lining. Many workers who were insulated from distraction by website-blocking software became more aware of time’s passage and were able to work for longer stretches—but also reported higher stress levels as a result of their sustained focus. [5]

For those seeking to exercise greater control over their attention span, science has some suggestions. A 2016 study found that mindfulness meditation led to short-term improvements in attention and focus, …read more

Source:: The Atlantic – Science

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