Would you be surprised to hear that you more than likely have a lower attention span than a goldfish? Would you like to be more focused? Perhaps even become more focused than Bubbles and Goldie? Then read on.
The attention span of the notoriously inattentive goldfish has been measured at an average of nine seconds. In 2000 the average human attention span was measured at a healthier, if hardly staggering, twelve seconds. However by 2013 the average human attention span had dropped to eight seconds. So what made us worse, and how can we improve?
Our attention span is important because it governs how well we will be able to perform pretty much any task that you set yourself, from flying a helicopter to making a cup of coffee. It’s the bedrock of how we learn, through memorising and through repetition, and so it follows that if we can improve our attention span we can improve our ability to learn anything, whether it’s the punchline to a joke or a foreign language.
Your brain has two systems that drive your attention span. The first is an unconscious system that continually monitors for important new information, and prompts rapid assessment and reaction. This is the system that when you are driving snaps your attention to a ball bouncing into the road, no matter what you may have been thinking about the split second before.
The second system is the conscious and deliberate focusing of attention. This is the system that we talk about when we talk about measuring attention span, and is the one that dropped from twelve seconds to eight in the course of only thirteen years. The reason for the drop in the average attention span was because of technology that is evolving faster than our ability to deal with it as effectively.
The interruptions that our unconscious system alerts us to are mimicked by e-mail notifications, pop-up adverts, text messages, social media updates. The constant stream of notifications that most of us have from our phones and computers, and the importance that we attach to them, have increased by fifty per cent the number of times our conscious attention is switched to something new.
It might be surprising then to be told that the answer to improving your conscious attention span lies in increasing the number of distractions. However it’s about those distractions being conscious – for instance working with a degree of background noise, using different coloured type or ink, or using different fonts. The more that we load up our conscious processing and approach our personal limit, the more we actually remove our ability to respond to other distractions.
Lessening the other distractions, such as turning off email notifications or logging out of social media, will also help by removing our richest seam of potential distractions. Finally mindfulness or meditation can also have a positive effect on the conscious attention span. Meditation teaches people the discipline of returning their attention to the same thing, along with the acceptance that their mind will wander. As a result people who have meditated long-term show increased brain capacity in the areas that deal with attention, and classroom and exam results have both shown improvement after a short course of meditation.
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