Goldfish, Apples and Short Attention Spans

There is an idea, becoming widely accepted, that ‘because of technology’ human attention spans are shrinking. Specifically, that at 8 seconds, they are now shorter that that of a goldfish. What is particularly hilarious about this statistic is that goldfish, despite their reputation, have been used in hundreds of studies over the last hundred years precisely because they learn and have rather good memories. You can ask Professor Felicity Huntingford if you don’t believe me.

When we first heard the 8 second span statistic, we did feel that there was something in it. Indeed, one of the reasons that a Peacebeam is 5 minutes long is because our initial testing showed that users would not click play on anything over 5 minutes and 30 seconds. However, this piece of in-house data did not seem to point to a short attention span. The people we were testing with appeared to have perfectly normal attention spans. When we asked why 5 minutes was the optimum length, the answer, universally, was ‘because I have no time, I already have so much to do’.  This was the belief regardless of the lifestyle of the user. Whether you are a full time parent, an investment banker, a retired person or a teenager – everyone feels that there is no time.

Why do we all feel like this? It is, after all,  a belief or a feeling rather than a fact. There is as much time as there always has been. What has changed is the amount we are required to fit into it and ironically, how much of our focused attention is required in our modern lives. Our technology-intense environments demand very high levels of focused attention, multi-tasking, rapid response and the ability to switch the high level of focus quickly. It is not an environment that is conducive to a short attention span, what it does is it overuses a focused attention span. Pings and tweets and notifications sound endlessly through everyone’s day, each requiring short bursts of focused attention. We tune out anything that isn’t relevant to our task in hand, or rather, our brain tunes it out because that is how it works. So it’s not that our attention spans are shorter but that they are seriously depleted by the excessive demand placed on them.

 

We can’t change our technological reality, but we can balance it. Research has found that exposure to nature replenishes and improves our high level cognitive functions like creativity and problem solving by as much as 50% and it rests and restores our tired brains and over-active nervous systems. We evolved in nature, in natural settings, we are designed by nature and we are soothed by it. We don’t need research to prove this to us; it is common sense.

 

One of our most popular Peacebeams is Apple, which speaks to the gentle, restorative wisdom of nature, its radical generosity and gentle abundance. It is remembering this that will help us to navigate our technological age and will keep us grounded in our human reality: we belong to the earth and the sky and its better to be in them sometimes rather than to view them through a 2D screen all the time.