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5/15/2015
04:21 PM
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.

(Image: ASpilot2be via jetcareers.com)

(Image: ASpilot2be via jetcareers.com)

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Thomas Claburn
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Thomas Claburn,
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5/15/2015 | 4:47:34 PM
tl;dr
I forgot what I was going to say.
mak63
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mak63,
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5/16/2015 | 1:39:06 PM
Re: tl;dr
@Thomas Claburn

I forgot what I was going to say.
That was really funny. I was about to add something else, but I forgot as well. Something about attention span I'm sure.
PedroGonzales
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PedroGonzales,
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5/16/2015 | 6:28:50 PM
Re: tl;dr
I think our efficiency has decrease; there are some jobs that require us to fully concentrate on a task.  At lunch, i saw a guy eating his meal while trying to watch a show on his smartphone.  I wouldn't be able to enjoy either the movie or the meal.  I think it is clear that if we repeat a specific task multiple time it will have an impact on our brains.
vnewman2
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vnewman2,
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5/17/2015 | 1:45:31 AM
Re: tl;dr
I would love to see the researchers focus on the evil stepsister of attention span - impatience. I know my ability to remain patient has hit an all-time low, and technology, and the problems inherent in using it, are definitely the cause.
mejiac
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mejiac,
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5/17/2015 | 3:00:41 PM
Re: tl;dr
@vnewman2,

"Impatience"...that's a very interesting point of view, and I think you're right. I'll hear my wife yelling at her phone because either a page won't finish loading or an app won't launch/work. I constantly have to reminder her that it's still a program that's running and many times they have hicups.

But  I do agree that we're getting accostumed to things loading instantly and not having to wait 10 min on the phone. But I think that at this time it's the nature of the beast.

What do you think?
vnewman2
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vnewman2,
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5/20/2015 | 1:29:51 PM
Re: tl;dr
@mejiac - I think we are getting spoiled with the advances that have been made with data transmission speeds and improved infrastructure. We expect it to work seamlessly all the time. That's not realistic. Just like humans, these things have good days and bad days and factors that interfere with optimal performance. It's like we are addicts. We get used to feeling a certain "high" and when the technology doesn't deliver, we have a meltdown.
mejiac
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mejiac,
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5/20/2015 | 1:40:16 PM
Re: tl;dr
@vnewman2,

Very true.... and here's something interesting... when consumers (by this I mean folks that aren't in an IT role) use a smartphone that's 2 or 3 iterations old, they think it's a dinosour because it won't launch apps with the speed of the current model.

Those in IT know that the processor on even two year old phones is still pretty robust, but we know that the OS and Apps are optimized to run on the latest hardwared (by design?)

It is of no surprise that a company that provides a fleet of phones/tablets normally goes through upgrade cycles every 2 to 4 years, since even though the hardware has improved, the app that was developed to be used on those handled is still working as designed (in fact, at least on iOS, the devices are configued to not allow updates to be pushed)
Broadway0474
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Broadway0474,
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5/21/2015 | 11:26:41 PM
Re: tl;dr
vnewman, as a consumer of data, bandwidth and RAM, I think that's a lame cop-out statement. Humans have bad days because we're human. We're animals driven by unconscious urges and half-cocked emotions, imaging that we're being logical and correct. Machines and networks are unthinking, unfeeling tools. If they don't function properly, they should. Or the people running them should be replaced with more efficient technicians.
vnewman2
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vnewman2,
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5/22/2015 | 12:50:20 AM
Re: tl;dr
@broadway. I totally get what you're saying but consider this: the machines are only as good as the humans who built them so by the transitive property :) they are inherently flawed.
Ariella
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Ariella,
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5/18/2015 | 12:02:23 PM
Re: tl;dr
@vnewman2 we adapt too easily to fast dowloads -- even those of us who remember the days before the internet and the days of dialing into Prodigy.
Ariella
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Ariella,
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5/18/2015 | 12:10:04 PM
Re: tl;dr
@PefroGonzales I'm guilty of that. I often check my email, social media updates, etc. while eating breakfast or lunch. I don't like to do it during dinner though.
PedroGonzales
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PedroGonzales,
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5/22/2015 | 10:35:04 PM
Re: tl;dr
@ ariella. I tried that one time. I got a headache.  I prefer to make a dedicated time and focus on using social media during that time.  I guess I'm old fashion but while eating I prefer to enjoy my meal or the company of my friends.
Broadway0474
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Broadway0474,
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5/23/2015 | 10:25:48 AM
Re: tl;dr
@Pedro, you are on the side of culture and decency and manners. Societal norms are changing, and we're raising new generations of people who don't enjoy what they're doing in any given moment unless they're sharing it. But I still hold to old belief that if you're having a great enough time in the present, you often don't remember or don't have time to take photos or tweet about it.
PedroGonzales
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PedroGonzales,
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5/24/2015 | 12:52:42 PM
Re: tl;dr
I agree. I sometimes wonder where are we going. I went to a lounge with some friends and notice in some tables two people seating next to each other, but they were looking at their phones rather than talking to each.  I think as a society we need to wonder what kind of values we are promoting. I really don't think technology isn't the main culprit but the culture norms we seem to promote in this age of constant connectivity. 
Broadway0474
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Broadway0474,
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5/25/2015 | 6:45:29 PM
Re: tl;dr
It's got to be offensive to the person you're with that you would rather communicate with people via device who aren't present. But my guess would be that, if you take those people at the lounge and place them in the room with whoever they were texting and WhatsApping or Facebooking with, that they would then ignore those people in their company too!
Ariella
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Ariella,
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5/26/2015 | 12:34:55 PM
Re: tl;dr
@PedroG You're better off. All diet guidelines say to stay focused on your food while while eating. Those who watch TV, check devices, or whatever don't really register the food that much and are more likely to overeat.
zerox203
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zerox203,
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5/15/2015 | 8:23:12 PM
Re: Microsoft Says Short Attention Spans Are Fine
Like Mr. Carr, I've often felt this way over the last decade, and not without awareness of how it connected with my digital lifestyle.  If I'm watching a recorded TV show, I often find myself pausing it to check how much time is left before the end. Why? I wanted to watch it, didn't I? I find myself missing the natural break commercials gave me to get up and move around. Maybe that's the part advertisers are worried about (I was glad to see you note the study was carried out for advertising purposes) - on the plus side, streaming video gives them the option to insert fewer commercials more frequently to hold that attention span - annoying for me, but it does keep me put. The full study put it like this: "digital lifestyles deplete the ability to remain focused on a single task, particularly in non-digital environments."

That means, though, that we don't necessarily have as much trouble staying focused if we are in a digital environment. I've noticed this to be true for me  as well. Matches in some online games can last upwards of 40 minutes, but I (and many of my generation) have no problem giving that my full attention - but that's with constant audiovisual stimulation, mouse-clicking, typing, voice chatting, etc, all at once. I've appreciated how this can be a dangerous trend, but looking at this study and the amount of multitasking involved, I'm seeing the upshoot. A generation of people who could apply that to productivity could be great. Imagine that youngster who checks his phone at dinner grows up to be someone who simply texts his boss 'yes, I can do that' instead of interrupting the whole family's dinner with a ten minute phone call. That's not so bad.
Broadway0474
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Broadway0474,
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5/16/2015 | 12:04:39 AM
Re: Microsoft Says Short Attention Spans Are Fine
"digital lifestyles deplete the ability to remain focused on a single task, particularly in non-digital environments."

Anyway you spin it, I am not buying it. I can't see how this is good. Being able to focus on one task is not old-fashioned. It is a requisite of being able to do that task well. Can't concentrate on something? No one can concentrate on something? We're doomed to a world of ever increasing mediocrity.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
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5/16/2015 | 2:12:39 AM
Re: Microsoft Says Short Attention Spans Are Fine
@Broadway0474- Well, be my guest, of course. But the more I read the stidy, the more i see myself in it. I don't concentrate less than I do before. I simply concentrate in shorter bursts on more things. It allows me to confidently switch tasks quickly which is something I have to do in a modern world. The data shows we actually concentrate MORE, just in shorter bursts. That seems OK by me.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
5/18/2015 | 12:29:07 PM
Re: Microsoft Says Short Attention Spans Are Fine
@Broadway- We're not concentrating less, because of our short attention spans. We're actally concentrating more. We're just doing it in shorter bursts. We're responding to a world around us which is demanding our split attention. People are evolving the ability to move their focus around faster and faster and remember more and be engaged more. That is not mediocre, it is just a different way of working. 

Doing one long task for a long time doesn't mean you pay perfect attention to it. It just means you had the discipline to sit there. But our brain frontloads attention so task switching and continuing to respond to the movement around us allows us to concentrate on more things and do them all better. It isn't about spin. It is about observing the brain's responses to stimuli around it.

We should actually be happy this is happening. Because if it wasn't we'd have brains that were poorly adapted to the world we created ourselves.
Broadway0474
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Broadway0474,
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5/18/2015 | 10:16:30 PM
Re: Microsoft Says Short Attention Spans Are Fine
David, thanks for the detailed explanation. I suppose I am stuck on the notion (perhaps specious) that multitasking is actually impossible. But what you're saying is that we can concentrate on one thing at a time still, but we can do it quicker before we move to the next thing. SO ... multitasking is still impossible, right?
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
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5/19/2015 | 3:06:50 PM
Re: Microsoft Says Short Attention Spans Are Fine
@Broadway0474- Yes, true multi-tasking as I think we define it is still dificult to impossible. But task switching quickly is possible. You brain just breaks stuff up into tasks differently than we describe them with language. But I wouldn't try to write a story while juggling knives and singing the Friends theme. There are limits. :)
Kelly22
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Kelly22,
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5/19/2015 | 3:48:08 PM
Re: Microsoft Says Short Attention Spans Are Fine
Sometimes (well, most of the time) I prefer task-switching, especially when my to-do list is long. If I focus too long on one project, I start to worry about all the other things I'm not doing. Breaking up each activity into chunks seems more productive, even if I'm only doing a little at a time.
Broadway0474
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Broadway0474,
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5/19/2015 | 10:57:07 PM
Re: Microsoft Says Short Attention Spans Are Fine
David, what about the oft-repeated research that suggests that once we jump from one task to another, it takes upward of 30 minutes to properly resume that first task? Each time I think I am going to accept this new data, I come back to that and the notion that task switching is detrimental. 
Kelly22
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Kelly22,
User Rank: Strategist
5/19/2015 | 1:42:03 PM
Re: Microsoft Says Short Attention Spans Are Fine
At first, it seems strange to interpret this as good news. How could we be happy about our attention spans getting shorter? But you make a good point in saying that this is the world we have created. With emails, text messages and news updates popping up every few minutes (/seconds), our attention is being pulled in multiple directions at once - and that technology isn't going away. If we couldn't adapt, that would be a bad sign for the future.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
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5/19/2015 | 2:57:34 PM
Re: Microsoft Says Short Attention Spans Are Fine
@Kelly22- Right, the alternative is to reject the technology which is cool. But it clearly isn't currently happening. If we want to go back to books and scrolls, our attention span will go up again, and pretty fast apparently.
danielcawrey
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danielcawrey,
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5/17/2015 | 8:03:02 PM
Re: Microsoft Says Short Attention Spans Are Fine
The fact that our attention span is shortening is not a good thing.

There's probably nothing we can do about it. That's disheartening. I've noticed that it's becoming harder for people to watch long movies, read books, or just plain relax. Technlogy has taken over. 
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
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5/18/2015 | 11:47:27 AM
Re: Microsoft Says Short Attention Spans Are Fine
@danielcawrey- Well, if that becomes a problem people don't like, they'll change technology. Personally, I think the fact that we'rew adapting to our environment that we are creating ourselves is an indictation that a) we're makign the world we want and b) that we're adapting nicely to it.
Ariella
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Ariella,
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5/18/2015 | 12:01:10 PM
Re: Microsoft Says Short Attention Spans Are Fine
Do we really know the attention span of goldfish? Did we figure it out by hooking them up to the internet?
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
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5/18/2015 | 1:35:45 PM
Re: Microsoft Says Short Attention Spans Are Fine
@ariella- I don't know exactly how it is done. I read a briefing of a study that simply said "brain recordings." When I read the fully study, I'll be the first to admit I didn't understand it. In humans, we do it with EEG. I assume we don't put little EEG helmets on goldfish. But I assme the concept is the same.
Ariella
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Ariella,
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5/18/2015 | 1:48:30 PM
Re: Microsoft Says Short Attention Spans Are Fine
@David I see the report on Newser that made that statement about goldfish attention span doesn't explain how it was measured.  I spent way more than 9 seconds trying to unearth how the goldfish's brain waves are measured in terms that I can understand but only found a book that got into the points of difference in inverterbrates and verterbrates without explaining how they are measured.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
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5/18/2015 | 2:11:24 PM
Re: Microsoft Says Short Attention Spans Are Fine
@ariella- yeah, what I did was look into ADHD research. There are some studies on fruit flies among and other low attention span creatures designed to help with ADHD research. They are somehow able to image the brains of small creatures. i just don't understand the method. The important thing actually isn't the goldfish stat though. the far more important part of the stat is lowering the attention span 25% in just 13 years. That is amazing. And it shows we are adapting to something. The environment of a goldfish is fairly static.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
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5/18/2015 | 12:51:07 PM
Re: Microsoft Says Short Attention Spans Are Fine
@zerox203- I think your video game analogy is important because it instructs the difference between attention span and willingness to do things for a long time. A video game allows for task switching. You go between the physcial challenges of moving your hands, various mental challenges like spacial relations and the "puzzle" of the game, etc.

You aren't actually keeping one moment of attnetion for 45 minutes. You are actually devoting your attnetion in bursts to different parts of the game. That's what we're really adapting to, moving our brain from place to place as needed as fast as possible.
Susan Fourtané
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Susan Fourtané,
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5/16/2015 | 8:11:31 AM
One second less than the attention span of a goldfish?
David, I went past your first sentence. I believe the owner of that cat riding the Roomba wanted to use the cat's tail to help the Roomba clean the floor. These studies usually generalize. What about thos of us who practice meditation and have more attention span than that goldfish? Some of us can actually sit still for more than a second as well. This only means that in that Microsoft study no one practiced meditation and the sample was not heterogeneous enough.. :) -Susan
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
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5/18/2015 | 12:13:20 PM
Re: One second less than the attention span of a goldfish?
@Susan- I have no doubt some people are higher. But I think a lot of us confuse what attention span really is. It is the time won can concentrate without being distracted, not the time until we get bored and want to do something else. Attention span isn't the same thing as your ability to draw your focus back in and complete a task. A lot of people don't realize how often their attention waivers. This is why the TV watching experiement in the study is so imporant.

People think when they sit down and watch a TV show or reading a book or they spent 30 minutes concentrating on that task. In reality, they didn't. In reality, the resources their brain devoted to it went up and down in bursts based on what they were thinking. For instance, maybe they saw a grocery bag on a table during the show and they spent a few seconds thinking about what they needed at teh store. Or they looked at some character's dress instead of paying attention to the plot. We focus our attention in short bursts even during long tasks. 

So when the study showed that multi-screening allowed us to remember more, it is because what we were doing is actually making better use of somehting that is already a part of us.

We're confusing attention span with boredom. Sure, someone who meditates can sit quietly and concentrate but when it comes to tasks their brain is by necessity going to task switch and change concentraiton levels. It is part of the brain's way of doing things. 
Ariella
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Ariella,
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5/18/2015 | 1:51:32 PM
Re: One second less than the attention span of a goldfish?
<So when the study showed that multi-screening allowed us to remember more, it is because what we were doing is actually making better use of somehting that is already a part of us.>

@David I think that is rather like the effect of doodling during class. Some teachers take offense because they see it as a sign of the kid paying attention. But really it helps one stay more tuned in if occupied in that way. I think students who don't do anything are much more likely to totally space out and absorb less in the class.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
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5/18/2015 | 2:12:47 PM
Re: One second less than the attention span of a goldfish?
@ariella- I think doodling is a good analogy. Also fidgeting. There's been some evidence that fidgeting or even getting up and walking around helps us learn rather than sitting still.
Ariella
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Ariella,
User Rank: Author
5/18/2015 | 2:27:20 PM
Re: One second less than the attention span of a goldfish?
@David yes, it's not natural for humans, especially young humans, to sit and stay focused for hours. I saw a video today of a school that is very successful at reaching its students, in part, by encouraging them to move and dance around in the class. See the video on Ron Clark Academy here 

 

ANON1243441910735
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ANON1243441910735,
User Rank: Strategist
5/16/2015 | 11:50:54 AM
Microsoft - It figures.
Having used a number of Microsoft products, this study doesn't surprise me. They seem to have been designed and built by people with short attention spans and little attention to detail. However, the ability to focus thought toward a single end is a useful talent, and the people who have that talent have produced many of our finest works of music, literature, poetry and philosophy. Otherwise, every novelist would be Jack Kerouac, every poet would be Alan Ginsberg, every musician would be David Byrne, and every essayist would be Hunter S. Thompson.
mejiac
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mejiac,
User Rank: Ninja
5/17/2015 | 2:58:13 PM
Re: Microsoft - It figures.
@ANON123441910735,

" the ability to focus thought toward a single end is a useful talent"

I share your sentiment. In any business environment, we're held accountable to provide deliverables....deliverables that do require our full attention.

Even though in the consumer world it does seem that the attention span is shrinking (I'm actually surprised that my son can keep calm and be entertainment on a single activity for so long, when most of this peers are asking "what's next" every 5 seconds), but at the entreprise level, this is a different story. Not being able to focus can easilly define the line between unemployed and employed.

 
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
5/18/2015 | 12:21:49 PM
Re: Microsoft - It figures.
@anon- The ability to do long tasks isn't necessarily the same thing as attention span. For instance, one can easily spend 8 hours a day on an assembly line job doing a repetitive task for 8 hours. That isn't attention span. That's actually the opposite. Most likely, that person has adapted to their job to actually devote few brain resources to that task so they they get through it either by thinking about something else or even just shutting down and sleep walking through it. 

Doing a long task doesn't mean that your brain is fully engaged. To actually "pay attention" to something you are devoting huge resources to it. You engage multiple parts of your brain. Your brain can wander from the task without stopping hte task. How often do you drive on a road trip, for example? You drive for hours and hours. Your brain devotes some resources to driving safely. But you also sing along to the music or talk to other people in the car. Or you think about whatever you think about. You are paying attention to many things. Your brain is switching what it is paying attention to. It is devoting resources differently.

So the ability to switch tasks and give burst of attention to things that are needed is not about not doing a task for a long time, it is actually allowing you to do that task more efficiently. You keep more of everything than you would if you tried to keep encoding everything you see doing one thing. That's why you don't remember every mile on the drive with perfect clarity. But you remember the moment the dog ran out into the highway.
Technocrati
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Technocrati,
User Rank: Ninja
5/18/2015 | 10:36:30 PM
Attention Spans: Sad for Man, Great for Goldfish
"....the human attention span .......is now 1 second less than the attention span of a goldfish."

I knew I could count on you Dave to catch this one, when I first heard this headline, I really could not believe my ears.

But after thinking about it awhile ( apparently 7.5 secs before my attention would turn to the latest new wonder) - It was easily understandable, this discovery explains alot assuming it is somewhat true and I do think it is reasonably close.

The old saying of "Dumb as a rock" might not be that far off either.

This is a sad day for mankind in my opinion and a great day for goldfish in general.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
5/19/2015 | 3:04:41 PM
Re: Attention Spans: Sad for Man, Great for Goldfish
@technocrati- Well, if we're in direct competition with goldfish, I know the solution. Give them smartphones.
Technocrati
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Technocrati,
User Rank: Ninja
5/18/2015 | 10:40:13 PM
Of course Microsoft supports a short attention span.......
.....it helps you forget just how many updates you have installed.
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