The Myth of our Shrinking Attention Span

The (lack of) evidence

I am sure you have heard various reports that our attention spans are shrinking.
In our busy lives where we have very little time to think, it is easy to accept this as a fact, but can we take a moment to unpack this?
First of all, I wonder, do we ever question how these reports define ‘attention’? What was the research measuring, how was it measured and are the results really true indicators of what is happening in our own brains? Is it clicks on screens or quality time with people we love? What is it and what was the point? Do we ever ask ourselves this?
Either way, could I ask you to now?
This is important, because attention is an essential element for learning and wellbeing.
This is because learning starts with what we pay attention to. If we are unable to maintain attention, then we are unlikely to be able to learn and less likely to be able to perform.
In addition, research does show that it is not our experience that determines our happiness, but what we pay attention to. This means that if we are able to control our attention, we are able to control our happiness. (see Happiness by Design by Paul Dolan as a starting point).

An alternate view

I propose a reframe of the problem which could help us to address it. That it is not our brains that are somehow unable to sustain attention, but that we are increasingly bombarded by distractions. Reframing in this way is important because if it is the former, it is outside of our control while the latter is within it.

Beliefs and behaviour

The problem is that our beliefs drive our behavior and if we believe we are unable to control our attention, we are less likely to try.
This is because motivation requires two essential elements:

  • Expectation – we need to believe that by performing and action the expected outcome will result
  • Value – we need to value the outcome (more than other options).

So if we have no expectation of being able to control our attention, because we have been told our attention spans are shrinking, then we are likely to accept this and it will become true. But not because of the science, because of our belief. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

We can change our brains

What we do know is that the brain is plastic and continues to change throughout our lives. (see The Brain that Changes Itself, Norman Doidge). This occurs in two ways, both of which we can control.
To understand this, we need to understand that we have these beautiful cells in our brains and central nervous systems called neurons that do a wonderful job of sending signals throughout our body to control our movements, thoughts and feelings. When these neurons connect to each other they create a web-like structure in our brains which forms multiple neural pathways making it easier for messages to travel along.
When we repeat a behavior or a thought, these pathways are strengthened, allowing messages to travel faster with less effort. This is great because it frees up our attention to focus on attaching new information to our existing pathways so we continue to learn, which requires effort.
We can enhance our neural network in a few ways:

  • Create new neurons (neurogenesis) – by eating healthy food, exercising, feeling happy and maintaining healthy relationships
  • Create more connections (synaptogenesis) – through cognition, thinking, focus, mindfulness and meditation.

What this all means is that we do have significant control over our attention and that by taking that control, we can improve it so we can achieve our intended outcomes.
If we are in control and able to enhance our brain (which science HAS proven), then it is reasonable to expect the outcome we desire.

The real problem

It would be great if it was that simple, but there are other factors at play. But don’t be disheartened, I call your attention to those because by being aware of them, we can gain even greater control of our behavior so it becomes easier for us.
I am arguing that the real problem we need to address is that sustained attention requires effort, but distraction does not. As humans, we are driven to conserve energy so, all other things being equal, we will opt for the behavior that requires the least amount of effort.
But the least amount of effort is unlikely to lead to learning, growth, improvement or happiness and more likely to result in feelings of inadequacy, stress, overwhelm and hopelessness. So it is worth finding ways to overcome this.

Overcoming the problem

To motivate ourselves to invest the energy to sustain our attention, we need to remind ourselves of the reward we are likely to receive from doing so, so we achieving the desired outcome from our actions.
This is where purpose becomes critical. Purpose is our reason for being and is a long term goal where the reward is often delayed. When we have a clear purpose, we can remind ourselves of it to enhance our motivation and focus our attention so we can achieve our purpose. When we are working toward our purpose, we can experience a state of flow where work becomes effortless and time disappears because we are so engaged in the activity. (see Flow, The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi). This is where focusing our attention is easiest and work becomes pleasurable. In addition, we experience happiness because we feel valuable and have greater control. Furthermore, when we are happy, we are more pleasant to be with and others will be more willing to engage with us to achieve outcomes collaboratively.
This is great for organisations and groups who need to work together because being pleasant and prepared to engage with others supports a culture of trust and psychological safety to empower people to share ideas, evaluate them, create knowledge and find innovative solutions to complex problems.
It all starts with attention and if we choose to accept that our attention spans are shrinking, we may miss many of the wonderful things life has to offer.

The real solution

I believe the real solution to our supposed shrinking attention spans is very simple.
Firstly, we need to get clarity over our purpose. This is fundamental to give us the energy to resist distraction and sustain our attention.
Secondly, we need to remove as many distractions as we possibly can so we don’t invest energy in resisting them. There is a lot more I could say here, but let’s leave it at that for now.
Finally, we need to focus our attention so we can create more and stronger neural pathways that allow us to feel better, learn better and perform better.
When we take control of our attention, we are better prepared to contribute to something bigger than ourselves where we experience a sense of belonging that drives our health and happiness. spans