Attention span: the myth of the goldfish

Citing the Treccani VocabularyThe word attention, from the Latin ad and tendere, “to turn the mind to”, indicates the act of turning and applying the mind to a stimulus, that is, the process of directing and concentrating psychic activity on a given object, whether sensory or representational”. The attention span of a goldfish is 0,9 seconds. There is a legend, which has been going viral on the net for years, that claims that human concentration is dizzily declining due to external conditions — such as the internet and new technologies — that do not allow the brain to work optimally.

On the one hand, the human ability to do several things simultaneously has improved, but the ability to stay focused on a single thing has steadily deteriorated. According to research carried out by the Statistic Brain Research Institute in 2000, the average attention span was 12 seconds, whereas today it seems to have fallen to just 8 seconds.

Let’s take a look at the reasons why we are nowadays completely embedded in this context.

Is “multitasking” bad for us?

We live in a very fast paced world: whether work, life or leisure is all concentrated in too short a time. For this reason, many people have developed an ability to do several things at the same time. We call this attitude ‘multitasking’.

The feeling of pleasure that the brain experiences when completing a task consists of a rush of dopamine: this results in the need to multiply tasks in order to experience the same feeling again (or more frequently).

According to Dr Paola Parisi (psychotherapist at the Istituto Clinico Humanitas), the risks of exaggerating this practice are various: inclination to anxiety and depression, and in the worst case scenario there could be a 15-point drop in IQ. In 2015, the multinational company Microsoft surveyed 2,000 people and monitored their brain activity by means of an electro-encephalogram; it emerged that attention had declined in recent years due mainly to the use of smartphones. We are in the information age, where it is increasingly difficult to get and control the user’s attention.

Improvement is possible!

By taking simple daily steps, we can optimise our memory and improve our attention. Creating a habitual routine and keeping the brain healthy means laying the foundations for more efficient functionality in the future.

Here are our tips:

  • Trying to learn new things all the time: developing new pathways within our brain can keep the mind trained. Interest in topics that have never been addressed before helps to focus more effectively;
  • Keeping the mind and body trained: through physical exercises our brain will receive more oxygen and our neural activities will improve. Training can reduce physical complications and stimulate the brain without negatively impacting memory;
  • Minimise distractions: working in noisy environments does not allow our brain to get used to focusing on important information. It is essential, at least once a day, to isolate yourself and read a book or simply stop and think;
  • Reduce stress: by eliminating stress, the activity of the hippocampus (the area of the brain associated with memory) will avoid negative stimuli. Overload can lead to a decline in attention, so try to manage your time properly;
  • Sleep for an adequate amount of time: The ideal average number of hours of sleep is between 7 and 9 (source: Istituto Superiore della Sanità). Sleeping well optimises attention, creativity, learning and critical thinking. To do this, try to limit as much as possible the use of electronic devices in the time before sleep and limit the consumption of tea and caffeine.

The myth of attention: reassurance

Attention is fundamental to making human life complete: safeguarding it is an arduous task, but a necessary one if we want to be well.

Bruce Morton, researcher at the Brain & Mind Institute of the University of Western Ontario, reassures us by saying that our brain is not in regression, but simply trying to adapt to a new context in which it finds itself living. The information society — to which we referred in the previous paragraph — creates a plurality of sources that require us to speed up the metabolism. According to the expert, our mind is in a training phase, so as to learn how to respond more effectively to digital suggestions.

If we maintain good attitudes in life, we will see how other external phenomena — such as the internet — will not burden our attention span.

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