attention span

Should we dumb down our smartphones to stop us becoming more stupid?

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Mike the Psych's Blog

Last September I asked on my other blog: Have we finally realised we need to unplug ourselves from endless apps and social media connections?

aansyq1I described the Light Phone and the fact that the old Nokia 3310 from 2000 was selling well on the internet. Now it’s been announced that the Nokia will be sold again with a larger colour screen but with only basic call and text facilities for around £49 in the UK.

It seems that the smartphone idea was being dumbed-down. Is that a bad idea?

Well in the Times Body & Soulsection last weekend they asked “is your smartphone making you stupid?.

41-epxoutyl-_sx309_bo1204203200_They thought it was – if you count a fleeting attention span, a poorer memory, and a more passive intellect as signs of increasing stupidity.

Arianna Huffington‘s book “Thrive: The third metric to redefining success and creating a happier life”

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Green micro-breaks good for productivity

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P1030063Researchers at the University of Melbourne gave 150 subjects a menial keystroke task responding to numbers on a computer screen.

After 5 minutes they were given  a 40 second break during which they were shown a view of a rooftop surrounded by tall buildings. Half of them saw a plain rooftop the other half a roof covered with a green flowering meadow.

Both groups then resumed the task. After the break concentration levels fell by 8% among those who saw the concrete roof as their performance grew less inconsistent. Those who saw the meadow showed a 6% increase in concentration and a steady performance.

The researchers suggest that having a green break – whether a walk in the park, looking out the window or even just a screensaver of this kind – is beneficial in improving performance and attention in the workplace.

The measure used: “Sustained attention to response task (SART)” had previously been mapped against brain imaging so they knew that the brain responds in predictable ways in these situations. People need to be able to both maintain focus and block out distractions to perform well.

The underlying theory is called Attention Restoration theory which suggests that natural environments have benefits for people. Nature is effortlessly fascinating and captures your attention without your having to consciously focus on it and thus allows you to replenish your stores of attention control.

Previous research has explored how people respond to landscapes like forests, parks, and woodlands for longer periods so this research using such a short time period is impressive.

The 40 seconds was based on a trial during which that was the average time people looked at the meadow scene. Whether such a micro-break is the optimal length is not known.

Other aspects of this research suggest that people would be more likely to help each other after a green break. It all sounds very positive and builds on previous research which shows that having access to nature helps reduce stress levels.

Source: HBR September 2015


Humans have shorter attention span than goldfish

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school_leader_1600_wht_5247According to the latest research from Microsoft we now have an average attention span of 8 seconds, compared to 9 seconds for a goldfish.

We stay focussed until we get distracted by social media alerts, our computer or smartphones.

Over a day it has a detrimental effect on your productivity. Microsoft research suggests there is a “switch cost” as it takes 15 to 25 minutes to get our mind focussed on what we were doing before an interruption.

The microsoft survey placed attention span into three categories: sustained i.e. prolonged focus, selective i.e. avoiding distraction, and alternating i.e. switching between tasks.

You might think you can multitask but that’s a myth. You might be able to deal with a handful of things but what you are actually doing is switching attention between them. And each time you do it you lose time re-focussing.

Microsoft estimates that it takes 15 to 25 minutes to get back to where you were before you were distracted.

David Rock, a neuropsychologist, thinks we can probably manage, at the most, 4 demanding things. This is fewer than the famous 7 plus or minus two that George Miller hypothesised back in the 1950s. So are we getting stupider? Microsoft’s research in 2000 found that the average human attention span was 12 seconds, compared to 8 seconds today.

What seems to be happening is that our brain is not keeping pace with modern technological demands even creating a phenomenon known as “phantom text syndrome” where we believe we have heard an alert from our phone or tablet. This particularly affects teenagers who typically text their friends twice as often as speaking to them face to face and are more dependent on the technology.

Factors affecting our attention span are: media consumption, social media usage, technology adoption (something Professor Sir Cary Cooper has spoken about recently), and multiscreen behaviour e.g. texting while watching TV.

I’ve posted elsewhere about FOMO and related anxiety-related conditions.

The only way to deal with this type of problem is to turn off your phone or computer at regular intervals. It will not only reduce anxiety but increase productivity by improving your focus.

Being focussed uses the pre-frontal cortex which is where you can be more creative and control your emotions better.

People who have trouble focussing make more emotional decisions and pay less attention to emotional cues.

If you are a regular technology user take regular breaks, go for a walk in the park, and talk to your colleagues face to face!