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Can you outthink a goldfish?

by SHOLEH PATRICK
| November 28, 2023 1:00 AM

We all know it by now: The average person today reads less and has a much shorter attention span. Taken together, that doesn’t bode well for man’s ability to think.

Don’t take my word for it. Consider a sampling of research.

According to Gallup surveys between 1999 and 2022, Americans’ reading has decreased by one-third. Why that’s important isn’t about hobbies; it’s a reflection of concentration.

A 2015 study by Microsoft Canada controversially concluded that humans have a shorter attention span than a goldfish. Let’s spend nine seconds thinking about that. Goldfish have an average attention span of, you guessed it, nine seconds. Using EEG scans of brain activity in 2,112 people, the researchers found humans average eight seconds before losing focus.

OK, so it’s oversimplified to say we’re bested by goldfish, but you see where this is headed.

Compare that to a study in 2004 when University of California-Irvine informatics professor Gloria Mark Irvine watched the university’s knowledge workers during a typical day at the office. They averaged just two and a half minutes on a given task before switching. The same average resulted from a later study of computer workers (Gould 2013). When Dr. Mark repeated her study in 2012, that had dropped to 75 seconds.

Today, Dr. Mark says average attention spans range from 12 to 47 seconds. That’s a big drop from 2.5 minutes less than 20 years ago.

Her research was at work, where we actually plan to concentrate. The eight-second (let’s call it the goldfish focus) is probably more applicable to everyday thoughts outside work. Whatever the number, it’s heading in the wrong direction and doesn’t bode well for economies, societies or relationships.

Even while focusing on something (or thinking we are), we interrupt it countless times to check texts and other distractions, even while eating or in some cases, in the bathroom. Once upon a time, we could put that aside easily, giving critical thinking and full analysis room to happen.

Now think about how the brain works. Regardless of IQ, it needs time to process information and thoughts; cutting that process short leads to poorer judgment, more assumptions and missing factors critical to an informed decision or conclusion.

It’s like those frustrating proofs in high school algebra and geometry. If you take the time only for the first two steps, you don’t get a complete answer. If you didn’t display the whole problem on the worksheet, the teacher marked it wrong. Without all the steps, we can’t arrive at a correct answer with — here’s a key point for focus — correct reasoning.

Thinking is like that. A shorter attention span leads to incomplete analysis. Plus, over time, we find it harder to get there as efficiently. As with anything, practice helps. Technology has improved multitasking skills, but it’s been murder on attention spans.

Want to increase your ability to focus? Give your attention span a regular workout with these exercises:

Turn it off daily, on schedule. As simple as it sounds, experiments both scientific and anecdotal strongly correlate better attention spans and, interestingly, greater feelings of happiness with sustained time off from smart phones and other gadgets. Two hours daily is a start, but an afternoon is better. People who’ve done it for a couple of days solid report unexpected mental benefits. Just make it a habit.

Focus exercises. This is actually fun. Ditch the gadgets and go somewhere alone with a notepad. It can be a coffee shop, mall or park; crowded with people or just you there. Simply sit quietly and observe, sometimes writing down what you notice. Over time and with repetition, you’re likely to see more layers, more nuances and have deeper thoughts about it all.

That’s the benefit of focus. Deep thoughts, improved concentration skills, complete analysis. And frankly, a bit of peace along the journey.

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Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Email sholeh@cdapress.com.