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5/15/2015
04:21 PM
David Wagner
David Wagner
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Microsoft Says Short Attention Spans Are Fine

Digital media, smartphones, and social networks are shortening our attention spans. But our brains are adapting nicely, according to research from Microsoft Canada.



6 Job Search Apps That Restore Your Dignity
6 Job Search Apps That Restore Your Dignity
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In slightly over a decade, the human attention span has dropped 25% -- from 12 seconds in 2000 to 8 seconds in 2013 -- and is now 1 second less than the attention span of a goldfish.

The main culprits are social media, smartphones and other mobile devices, and digital streaming. In fact, at the average rate of the human attention span, and human reading speed, you moved on to something else as soon as you read that first sentence.

A few of you hung on for the second. Here's the most interesting part (if you stuck around): According to a study by Microsoft Canada, this is the result of our brains adapting to our environment, and it is a good thing.

Look, that was a lot to take in all at once. To reward you, let me give your brain something else to watch for a second. Here is a cat riding a Roomba:

I bet you enjoyed that for a couple of seconds, and then about 8 seconds in, you were ready to move onto something else.

That's because 8 seconds is the current average human attention span. After that, we usually go looking for another stimulus. You got your tiny dopamine fix at the beginning, probably smiled at the cat and then thought (or felt), "OK, I've seen this. What's next?"

Social media, multi-screening (using a phone or tablet while watching TV or using another device), and having instant access to our phones has created the need to keep feeding our brains. The next fix is just seconds away.

(Image: ASpilot2be via jetcareers.com)

(Image: ASpilot2be via jetcareers.com)

This is a behavior that is known and has been criticized in the past. This is part of the whole Google is making us stupid argument of Nicholas Carr, who said having information at our fingertips means we don't reason anymore. Back in March, I covered a study that showed that smartphones don't make us dumb so much as they make us lazy.

According to the Microsoft study, being lazy makes us smarter. Before I tell you how, your brain has been working very hard. Let me give you a new distraction. Here's a baby singing "Let it Go":

Was it hard to get through it all without looking at something else? That's because digital media and technology have trained you to "frontload" your attention span. You also concentrate in small, focused bursts.

Microsoft Canada's report is based on the results of a gamified survey of 2,000 Canadians conducted in the fourth quarter of 2014, plus field work conducted in December 2014 on 112 subjects using portable EEG and video. The 2,000 respondents to the online survey were divided into three equal-sized groups: low, medium, and high attention, each representing one third of the sample.

It also looked at the change in attention spans when people engaged with only one form of media at a time versus multiple screens simultaneously. The researchers found that study participants who were simultaneously engaging with multiple screens retained more information, were more engaged, and paid more attention than when those who were watching a single medium, like TV.

[ You think mobile devices are everywhere now? Check out what babies are doing with them. Read Meet Your IT Workers of the Future. ]

We've adapted our brains to certain auditory cues that basically say, "OK, you need to pay attention here," like a laugh in a sitcom.

In other words, we're not necessarily paying less attention throughout the day than we did before. We're getting

Page 2: More focus, more distracting animal videos



more efficient. We've adapted to a stimulus-rich environment by learning how to manage our concentration resources better. We're remembering more of what we watch when we switch back and forth between tasks.

So let's switch again. Here's a video of a dancing otter:

The study also explored three distinct kinds of attention: Sustained concentration (focusing on a task for a long time); task switching (switching between tasks while still maintaining concentration); and selective attention (avoiding distractions). We might be getting worse at sustained concentration, but we're getting better at the other two. And we're adapting the way we accomplish tasks to make up for the lack of sustained concentration.

In fact, it might even be all those distractions themselves making us better at this. The brain likes to track moving things. It is a survival instinct from our hunting days. All these distractions are the "moving targets" of the 21st century. Like we encoded the memory of how we killed the jaguar with a spear better than we encoded the memory of sitting by the camp fire, we encode the memory of the 21st century deluge of data better than we encode periods of sustained concentration.

Sure, it sounds bad to say a human has a shorter attention span than a goldfish, but what the heck does a goldfish do all day? Swim around its bowl. Does a goldfish need to be constantly shifting concentration from the little plastic castle to the little diver, and back to the little castle? No. Humans, on the other hand, do need to shift attention. So this is OK.

There are limits, of course. Because the Microsoft Canada study was conducted to measure the effectiveness of online marketing, the researchers didn't delve into the potential downsides. They paint the rosiest picture of how our media-rich world isn't rotting our brains. Rather, it's rewiring them with a positive adaptation.

What do you think? Is the modern world changing your brain? Do you have a better or worse attention span than you used to? Do you feel you have better retention when you multi-screen than when you're in a single-screen situation? Tell us in the comments section below.

Oh, and for paying such good attention, you get one more bonus video:

[Did you miss any of the InformationWeek Conference in Las Vegas last month? Don't worry: We have you covered. Check out what our speakers had to say and see tweets from the show. Let's keep the conversation going.]

David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Enterpriseefficiency.com. Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, ... View Full Bio
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