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.

David Wagner, Executive Editor, Community & IT Life

May 15, 2015

2 Min Read
<p align="left">(Image: <a href="" target="_blank">ASpilot2be</a> via</p>

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.]

About the Author(s)

David Wagner

Executive Editor, Community & IT Life

David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, leadership, and innovation. He has also been a freelance writer for many top consulting firms and academics in the business and technology sectors. Born in Silver Spring, Md., he grew up doodling on the back of used punch cards from the data center his father ran for over 25 years. In his spare time, he loses golf balls (and occasionally puts one in a hole), posts too often on Facebook, and teaches his two kids to take the zombie apocalypse just a little too seriously. 

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