So this happened. Microsoft conducted a study on the impact on people of media usage, and concluded that the average attention span of the typical North American media user is eight seconds. This is less than the attention span of a goldfish (at nine seconds), which means that if you are an average media-user, and you try to do a stare-off with a goldfish, you will look away first. This will happen not because the goldfish intimidates you, but because you will be distracted sooner than the goldfish. How does one measure the attention span of a goldfish, anyway? Maybe you see how long the goldfish looks at the treasure chest before it swims over to the castle. And if the scientist has a shorter attention span than the goldfish, then wouldn’t the scientist get distracted before the goldfish swims to the castle? I need to have a seaweed snack.
In some instances, a short attention span might be useful. For instance, it’s probably not a good thing to waste too much time staring at goldfish. On the other hand, having a short attention span makes it difficult to read for an extended period of time, to write or lose oneself in creative pursuits, or to engage in contemplative reflection and deep thought. On this hand, it seems pathetic that a goldfish has a greater ability to read Dostoevsky than a media-savvy human. How many hands is that? I could use a manicure. I just noticed that my right hand looks older than my left hand. What was I saying?
Oh yeah. The study defined attention span as “the amount of concentrated time on task without becoming distracted.” Those studied who were heavy users of multiple devices were unable filter out irrelevant input and were easily distracted by the many media streams bombarding them on electronic devices. This is one of the reasons why I don’t allow advertising on my blog; because, let’s face it, who will actually finish reading the blog if cats, chocolate bars, the trailer for Galaxy Quest, boots, seaweed snacks, Paulownia trees, and the Raiders football team keep hopping and popping in the margins? I definitely must watch Galaxy Quest again. Excuse me for a couple of hours.
The brain is malleable and it adjusts to the work required of it. The brains of people who spend a lot of time on the mobile internet become wired with a poor attention span. The more time people spend reading on the internet and clicking through hyperlinks on an endless trail to nowhere in particular, the shorter their attention span, until they can no longer read a novel, finish eating breakfast, or tie their shoes (hence the invention of Velcro). Personally, I think this contributes to road rage because people have no patience whatsoever. They can’t wait for the guy in front of them to get out of their way so they can get to WalMart five seconds sooner to buy a digital box of Kleenex that they saw advertised on their phone. I confess the irony of this coming from me since I have no patience for waiting in line, but I had no patience for waiting in line long before the internet was invented, so perhaps I possess a sliver of goldfish DNA. (Picture me doing the fish lips thing—boop, boop.) On the other hand, I always bring a large book with me to read while waiting in line, particularly at the post office, since postal workers take longer to sell someone a sheet of stamps than it takes to rescue Matt Damon from Mars. And that was a way cool movie with amazing special effects and gorgeous Mars-scapes. Wait, how did I wind up on Mars? Where am I?
The Microsoft study found significant generational differences in the use of mobile devices, reporting that 77% of people age 18-24 said that when nothing is occupying their attention, the first thing they do is reach for their phone, compared to only 10% of those over 65 who said they reach for their phone when nothing else is occupying their attention. That statistic doesn’t tell us anything useful since most people over 65 generally can’t remember where they put their phone. This means they rarely have “nothing else occupying their attention” because their attention is occupied trying to remember where they put their phone; and their shoes, wallet, keys, coffee, toothbrush, oxygen tank, husband, or refrigerator. Wait, is this my house? Shoot, I guess it’s on me to have the furnace serviced. Where was I going with this?
Online reading, hopping, and following trails of information down a long-and-winding-road physically rewires the brain to process information in a way that destroys pathways that support sustained concentration and thought. This is why young adults in my children’s generation have more and more trouble reading books. Short articles maybe, or blog posts, yes, but a whole novel? Overwhelming. Fortunately the brain can be rewired with some effort. Spending time in nature, unplugged, is one of the best ways to rewire the brain for more sustained activity. When the brain is no longer bombarded with an avalanche of external electronic-generated stimuli, it relaxes. It doesn’t feel compelled to process all that scattershot info-image-input rattling at it. In short, entering a meditative or contemplative state, such as nature provides, allows people to regain control of their thought processes. The brain is an evolving organ and we can control its evolution to a large extent.
If you want to rewire your brain to think for itself and regain the ability to exercise sustained thought, I suggest the following exercises: pet the cat, make soup, plant a garden, walk among tall trees, spend a day at the ocean, play hide-and-seek with a toddler. Find a terrific edge-of-your-seat book and slowly build up to reading more and more pages each day. I hesitate to recommend meditation simply because it would be hypocritical coming from me, since it does not end well when I try to meditate. To me it feels too much like waiting in line and I don’t have the patience, but it works extremely well for many other people. My friend Rita, a doctor of psychology, has successfully effected extraordinary positive change in public schools by introducing mindfulness meditation. Rita tells me that my daily morning walk is my mindfulness meditation. So maybe I am better at meditating than I think. An image of cheese just popped into my head. Is anyone else hungry?
Which leads me to the self-driving car. Seriously? Do we really need a self-driving car so people can occupy themselves bouncing around on electronic devices while on the road? Are people so incapable of having thoughts while driving? It concerns me that people can’t pay attention, because if we can’t pay attention long enough to read or follow a train of thought, then how can we pay attention to our lives? We are in danger of failing to live deliberately, failing to truly and gloriously dwell in the moment before it slips away, in danger of missing the opportunity to revel in the good things in life. Before I get distracted by answering my email, reading the online news, or watching another Facebook vid of someone’s patio furniture covered in snow during the Great Blizzard of 2016, I want to remind you, to remind us, all of us, to look up from the screen. Look up. Let’s change our minds while we still can.