Instagram, Vine, Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook have become one of the primary means by which people in our world today receive and sort information. 2013 is slated to be the first year on record in which Americans will spend more time on their computers and mobile devices than they spend watching TV. Americans now spend more than 5 hours per day on their computers and other mobile electronics. One of the hallmarks of information presented in this digital format is its brevity. Rather than sit down and watch an entire television show, people in the world today are much more prone to digest multiple short YouTube videos or Vines. Rather than spend the time to read a longform article, book, or periodical, millions are now turning to 140-character blips on Twitter for their news and entertainment. This recent fascination with instantly available bytes of information is changing the way that we think and learn in very real ways.
Our brains are wired by nature to be attracted to new or novel sensory inputs. For those who lived in former, more dangerous times, this was a method of survival. Any new sensory information was taken and processed as potential danger. Now, though, in a relatively more comfortable age, this thirst for new, different inputs has hijacked our attention span. Before the advent of the Internet, if someone wanted to learn something or be entertained, they had to make a journey to a library or a theater, spending a large amount of time or effort. Now everything from scientific journals to America’s Funniest Videos is available instantly online. This allows our brains an inexhaustible fountain of sensory novelty. We become addicted to the current of information that keeps our brains constantly engaged.
So, how has it changed the way that we learn?
The internet seizes our attention only to scatter it. We focus on the medium itself, the screen, but we are distracted by its rapid fire delivery of competing messages. Our attention becomes fragmented, hopping from link to link, beckoned by the next image or short bit of text. This results in a state of low level distractedness in other areas of life. We find ourselves unable to focus on longform text or anything that requires sustained concentration. The more we multitask, the less cognitively deliberative we become. We are superficially skillful, but our conscious thought is short circuited. We become simply signal processing units, not deeply considering information and translating it into knowledge. Rather than stop to consider what something means, we are driven to only consider how we will react to it.
For many Americans today, it is almost impossible to put in the time or effort to actually process and learn complex information. For the College Student, this makes it very difficult to remain focused on anything that is not constantly flashing with new updates. It results in a general sense of distractedness and meaninglessness. When all of the information in the world is at our fingertips, how do we determine what is important and what isn’t?
So, how do I make it better?
One of the most important things that we can do to reclaim our attention span is to systematically block out these distractions. We cannot trust ourselves to remain focused when the screen beckons like a siren to the rocks. Use tools such as stayfocused.com or selfcontrol to refocus your mind. Attempt to distance yourself from the distractions. Place phones or computers in a silent mode and leave them in another room. Read a book with your phone turned off. When we are able to take and actually ponder and process information, we are better able to form the neuron connections in our brains that lead to recall of that information.
What are some strategies that you use to maintain attention?
Do you think that this reduced attention span is a bad thing, or just a change to deal with?