Losing our attention span?

I think we’ve been here before. When I was 10 years old a professor of something or other (I think it was sociology) from England visited my school, and he had a very stark warning for us young students. We were likely to be the last generation, he said, that could face the rigour of tackling an argument or understanding a treatise. And why? Because of television advertising on ITV (and I guess, Telefis Eireann, as it then was). As these pesky commercials interrupted everything every 15 minutes, our brains would adapt and would be unable to focus on anything for longer than that. For good measure, he also pointed to the growing popularity of tabloid newspapers, and their tendency to wrap up every story, no matter how complicated, in three paragraphs. At least I think that’s what he said. It took him longer than 15 minutes, and my mind may have drifted; or maybe I was just thinking, what a load of codswallop.

Anyway, the professor’s intellectual heirs have continued banging this drum (as no doubt his intellectual ancestors did, from the first moment that the printing press distributed leaflets with bite-size arguments). The most recent drum banger is Professor Gary Small of UCLA (Los Angeles), who is quoted by the Daily Telegraph as warning us about the internet, and all the Twitter and Facebook stuff. It is developing ‘new neural pathways’, he says, and we should be very afraid:

‘Deep thought, the ability to immerse oneself in an area of study, to follow a narrative, to understand an argument and develop a critique, is giving way to skimming. Young users of the internet are good at drawing together information for a school project, for example, but that does not mean they have digested it.’

All my life I have listened to people telling me that modern technology, communications or media are leaving us unable to handle big themes and arguments and are making us skim along the surface of knowledge without really taking anything in. I’m never sure what I am supposed to conclude from this – am I supposed to take a sledgehammer and destroy all that annoying computer hardware, televisions and so forth? Or am I just supposed to expand my complaints inventory and join the ‘Oh-aren’t-we-all-getting-so-thick’ brigade?

I don’t actually care about the new neural pathways, I see absolutely no evidence of a new more stupid generation. Nor do I believe that the availability of much more information, and of hyperlinks to pursue it, has killed good analysis. If there is evidence of anything at all here, it is the fear of the unknown, and of the impact of technology as it changes our lives. Right now the Amazon Kindle, and the iPad, and other devices (another post on this coming up) have helped to grow the number of readers of serious books, and news sites on the internet, including those undertaking serious analysis, are thriving. I believe that there is a natural instinct in humans to look for explanations, and the availability of information to pursue this is developing rather than hindering analytical skills. I am not of course saying that everyone does this well and that information is never misunderstood or abused – but that’s not a new problem.

So for heaven’s sake let us stop worrying about new ways of finding and disseminating information. Let us just harness it.

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14 Comments on “Losing our attention span?”

  1. sm Says:

    There is a related rant about how live presentation of material by professors is obsolete because the ***** is going to replace it. I was rather inoculated against this rant because I went to university in 1968, where all the students in arts and science took a variety of core courses, and where I went some of them were available on videotape. This was supposed to make things more accessible for the students, but people avoided the taped lectures like the plague.

  2. kevin denny Says:

    Firstly, “new neural pathways” are a good thing, its called learning, so you should care about them. Learning to use Facebook or Twitter doesn’t mean you forget how to read just as learning to fly a plane doesn’t make you forget how to drive a car. Really this is just using sciency sounding language to scare people.
    Recently Susan Greenfield, who should know better, had floated the idea that social networks, Twitter etc was damaging the brains of the young ‘uns. One British newspaper (Daily Mail, I think) even had a headline “Facebook causes cancer”. But its all bunkum as Ben Goldacre (Bad Science columnist at the Guardian) gleefully pointed out.

  3. Vincent Says:

    The iconoclastic tradition is the one you fit in here. And while not exactly the same precisely, mindset-wise, it’s walks near enough like a duck.

    And anyway, how on earth can going back to using a typewriter, a quill or stylus be seen as anything other than a hindrance to neural pathways.

  4. Our attention spans are finite, as is the complexity of an argument we can follow, and our memory. All are largely designed for hunting mammoth, avoiding sabre tooth tigers, and figuring out how to get into Big Chief Wampums daughters skins.

    It is logical that practice and exposure to circumstances will affect these skills a little, and that evolution will affect them somewhat more over time.

    Plausible sounding arguments about the direction of the effect can be made either way. Some empirical evidence, based on comparison studies across different levels of technological exposure will be along shortly no doubt. The studies will almost certainly be highly flawed and inconclusive, and used by both sides of the debate to flog books.
    So we just have to slog on and use what seems useful as best we can.

  5. Ernie Ball Says:

    It’s comforting to know a priori that technologies that have been, at least in part, expressly designed to distract us (the better to “monetize” the distractions) couldn’t possibly have the effect of distracting us.

  6. iainmacl Says:

    perhaps its possible to reach a compromise, taking the best of technologies from different eras as here:

  7. Mister Reiner Says:

    When I was young, which was many years ago, I would always listen to what people had to say, just out of sheer curiosity.

    These days, kids decide if what you’re saying has any personal value to them in 15 seconds or less. As soon as they’ve determined that what you’re saying has no value, they press the virtual mute button and focus their attention on something else.

    There is a wealth of content available on the Internet these days and people flip through it like pages of a magazine. Like it or not, we’re being flipped through as well.


  8. cormac Says:

    I’m with Reiner. Why is Ferdinand so sure attention spans haven’t decreased? I’m not sure either way, but I certainly notice students find a long maths problem tougher than they did when I first started teaching. It’s always hard to prove causation, but would it be that surprising if tv had a big influence, especially on younger kids? I’d like to seee some evidence to disprove this before I dismissed it

    • Niall Says:

      I’d like to see some evidence to suggest decreasing attention spans – beyond anecdote. TV has been around a long time now – since the 1960s in Ireland – long enough time to affect most of us.

      Morse code has been around for more than 100 years. Messages were short mainly due to the technology – an earlier version of Twitter? (especially when you think of its use in amateur radio).

      BTW – what’s wrong with flicking through magazines or websites. I certainly flick, looking for interesting or important info. As I also read books and academic articles, I don’t think this is connected with my ability to concentrate.

    • Perry Share Says:

      lost you there – attention spans have … ??

  9. iainmacl Says:

    I always find that Annual Reviews of Psychology are a useful source of information on the current research trends and findings in these issues, rather than relying on newspaper articles, blogs and the popular-paperback gurus. In terms of what affects academic achievement (and reminding of the importance of the limitation on working memory (to about 5-7 items in play at once) and the other factors that support it in terms of learning), have a look at this paper in the latest edition (2010)


  10. sm Says:

    From the pioneering scholar of Indian religion, Max Muller, from volume one of the Sacred Books of the East, 1879:

    “With the life we are leading now, with telegrams, letters, newspapers, reviews, pamphlets, and books ever breaking in upon us, it has become impossible, or almost impossible, ever to arrive at that intensity of thought which the Hindus meant by ekâgratâ, and the attainment of which was to them the indispensable condition of all philosophical and religious speculation.”

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