The multiple tabs of attention

In beginning to write this blog post, my attention has wandered about three times in the last five minutes. Right now I can’t even remember what I was thinking about.

Gen Z has been conditioned to a decreased attention span. It’s no wonder with the way we use technology, and our brains’ attention span is now described as something akin to all the tabs that we have open on our devices. The evolvement of humans means that we are constantly adapting to our environments and have hence changed our attention span to match the demands of our technological, information saturated landscape. According to Microsoft’s study of attention spans (2015), the average human attention span has decreased from twelve seconds in 2000 to nine seconds in 2015. Thus, the statement that our attention span is the same as that of a goldfish is actually true. Technology use is decreasing this attention span across the board, however it is particularly prevalent in the younger generation who is using technology much more than older generations.

Of course, this would vary amongst individuals. With our attention spans being that short it’s quite an amazing feat that the population still manages to follow through with huge projects such as thesis’ at universities or large creative projects.

Microsoft’s study broke attention down into three different types, as it’s impossible to assume that we all us the same type of attention for every activity in our lives.

  • Sustained (prolonged focus) – Maintaining prolonged focus during repetitive activities (Microsoft 2015)
  • Selective (avoiding distraction) – Maintaining response in the face of distracting or competing stimuli (Microsoft 2015)
  • Alternating (efficiently switching between tasks) – Shifting attention between tasks demanding different cognitive skills (Microsoft 2015)

The study found the top factors that impact attention to be:

  • Media consumption
  • Social media use
  • Technology adoption rate
  • Multi-screening behaviour

The way that society uses technology and social media is severely affecting our attention spans when it comes to sustained attention and selective attention. The sheer availability of stimuli that is available by just using one screen is enough to distract anyone from sustaining attention for one activity, let alone the factor of bringing other screens into the equation, such as having your phone in front of you on the desk whilst working on a computer.

For alternating attention, however, our technology use has positively impacted this in training and developing our brains to multi-task. Multi-tasking has become the most efficient and used way for people to complete tasks by jumping between a couple of different tasks at the one time. Overcoming boredom and repetitiveness is difficult when attempting to stay on one task for a long period of time, therefore multi-tasking can overcome this by keeping the brain active and stimulated through switching between different activities.

Brain researcher Jean-Philippe Lachaux delivered a talk on attention and the neural processes involved in different cognitive activities related to attention.

Lachaux discusses visual attention, which was the focus of the small task I put together to test attention spans. After talking to someone about the subject material of class whilst their phones were in front of them, I proceeded to read out one of the reading’s posted on Moodle for two minutes and monitored to see how many times  they checked their phone throughout the whole conversation. This test found that they checked their phone, on average, every 7 seconds while I was talking about the subject at first. When I began the reading the participant spent over half the time I was talking concentrated on their phone.

Lachaux also brings up the point of focusing on what’s important to us and what our brains prioritise when it comes to directing our attention. There is so much content on the internet and in magazines about prioritising tasks, with articles attempting to teach us how to most efficiently prioritise  to get everything done.

The problem lies within it seeming that everything in our lives is a priority and we are apparently running out of attention.


Gausby, A 2015, Attention Spans, Consumer Insights Microsoft Canada, pg. 6 – 39


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