Why Can't We Just Pay Attention?

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A warning: reading this article will most likely take you longer than the average attention span of a human. According to Kevin McSpadden of TIME, this is just over eight seconds, which is shorter than that of a goldfish by one second. How on earth did we humans, the pinnacle of creation, become more distractible than a creature that weighs seven grams?

McSpadden says that it is due to “an increasingly digitalized lifestyle” (big surprise there). He quotes a report put out by Microsoft, saying, “Heavy multi-screeners find it difficult to filter out irrelevant stimuli—they’re more easily distracted by multiple streams of media.” We have so many different forms of media coming at us at all times that we cannot focus on one source of media at a time for long before jumping to another.

This should not really come as that big of a surprise to anyone; our short attention span is reflected and reinforced by the social media we consume. We scroll through Facebook feeds of short videos and quick witty sayings, our tweets are limited to only 140 characters, our Instagram feeds are constantly filled with snapshots and 15 second videos of daily life, Vine only allows for six second videos, and now Instagram’s Boomerang shares one second videos with friends.

As much as I would like to say I’m above this trend, my attention span is also very short. Sometimes I catch myself losing interest in a ten second snapchat story, or even thinking to myself that a Vine is dragging on when I’m only three seconds in. It is something that bothers me about myself and society. In one sense, we can’t help it; attention span is not something you can just lengthen through wishful thinking. However, I do think it is something we should push back against.

Many of the most important things in life take longer than just eight seconds: getting involved in a church, getting an education, or building and developing relationships. There is a lot of value in a process that takes time. Although important events surely can happen in the span of eight seconds, a majority of lasting achievements take time and care.

I think we need to make ourselves do things that naturally outlast our attention spans. I will admit, even I have found myself starting to read a Bagpipe article and then stopping halfway through because I lost interest, or something else caught my eye (so congratulations if you made it this far into mine).

I’m no scientist (well okay, I sort of am as a physics major), but I would think that the more we force ourselves to pay attention to things for longer periods of time, the more our attention span will grow. Perhaps by forcing our attention span to be longer, it actually will increase with time. Hopefully we can then come to more appreciate events that take time to come to fruition. Maybe if we resist the temptation to switch apps on our phones every five seconds, we can raise the average attention span of our species—or at least keep it from going down anymore.