Can You Focus On This – for 8 Seconds?

 attention span

By Shlomo Maital

   Technology is changed and adapted by human thought. But the process is circular — technology also changes human thought and behavior.   For instance, the rapid-fire images of MTV music videos, which change several times a second, caught on with young people. Same with smartphones – texting, without verbs and nouns, with emojis. Instant. Fast.

     A study of Canadian media consumption by Microsoft, quoted in Timothy Egan’s New York Times Op-Ed (Jan 23-24/2016) found that the average attention span (“the amount of concentrated time on a task without becoming distracted) has declined from 12 seconds in the year 2000, to 8 seconds in 2015. “We now have a shorter attention span than goldfish”, Egan quotes the study.

   Here at my university Technion, Sarah Katzir, who interacts with students daily, recently spoke about this ever-shorter attention span as a major problem for university instructors. Students simply are not able to stay focused for an entire 50 – minute class. And when instructors ban their use of smartphones in class, there is an outcry heard throughout my country.

     “Our devices have rewired our brains,” Egan notes. “The trash flows, unfiltered, along with the relevant stuff, in an eternal stream. And the last hit of dopamine only accelerates the need for another one.”   In other words – our ever-shorter attention spans are actually a kind of addiction, a need for a shot of ‘dopamine’ at ever-shorter intervals, from some new stimulus.

     Antidotes?  Egan has two. First, gardening. “Working the ground, there is no instant gratification”. Planting, he notes, forces you to think in half-year increments, at least. Second, deep reading. Curl up with an 800-page tome. Try, Gibbon’s history of the Roman empire. Will Durant’s history of the world. Or, Egan’s choice, William Manchester’s massive biography of Winston Churchill.   Each of us can fight that short attention span, and at the least, become as focused as… goldfish.

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