STRONGER TOGETHER: The Attention Paradox—Information Rich, Focus Poor

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Last updated: 19/02/2024

"STRONGER TOGETHER" is a weekly column where Tanya explores key issues. This week Tanya discusses the human attention span, and the ultimate "cost" of the sheer volume of information we receive on a daily basis.

By IMPACT Community Services Managing Director Tanya O'Shea

Tanya O'Shea, IMPACT Community Services Managing Director

In a world where the buzz of notifications competes with the quiet hum of our thoughts, the analogy of a human attention span equalling that of a goldfish—just 8 seconds—has gained traction. But how did we arrive at comparing the complexity of the human brain to that of a small aquatic creature?

Let’s park the analogy about the goldfish for a minute and consider where this view has stemmed from. The simple reality is that between new technology and social media consumption, the sheer volume of information that we are receiving is expanding way beyond our brains capacity to process it. Our thirst for knowledge far exceeds our ability to digest it, and we therefore skim content as we switch between apps or respond to a new text or email.

Imagine the blast of water that you get from a fire hose compared to the trickle that comes from a garden hose. That ‘blast’ is the daily 333.2 billion emails or the 23 billion text messages that are sent, or the content we consume through various social media channels.

Thankfully, the human brain is plastic and built to learn and adjust to the changing world and the information that we get during our daily ‘blast’. We learn to tune out the unimportant and refine our focus and attention to things that matter. Or do we? Even if we think that we are good at filtering out all of that ‘noisy’ unhelpful information, there is a cost that comes with having to undertake this daily practice.

Herbert A Simon, esteemed American social scientist, Nobel Prize Winner for Economics in 1978 and best known for his work on decision-making theory, summed it up best when he said, ‘A wealth of information creates poverty of attention.’

Today, we are rich in information, yet poor when it comes to attention and focus. We are fatigued, as our brains consume simultaneous streams of inputs from our external environment. Our brain relies on patterns – the neural superhighways that we create that enable us to form habits and undertake daily tasks – yet is challenged by the continual switching of attention back and forth between tasks. This damages our focus and erodes our productivity, leaving us with an empty tank when it comes to mental energy. Unfortunately pushing through the neural fatigue and running on empty has become the norm for many in today’s society.

Ironically, the very devices and apps designed to enhance our connectivity and productivity often serve as the primary sources of distraction, pulling us away from the present moment and fragmenting our concentration.

And while the concept of multitasking may be hailed as a coveted skill, research consistently underscores the inefficacy of dividing our cognitive resources across multiple tasks simultaneously. It’s like juggling flaming torches while riding a unicycle— an impressive spectacle, to be sure, but scarcely sustainable in the long run.

The good news is, however, neurologically, our attention spans haven’t drastically changed. It’s the environment that hijacks our focus. And as technology’s evolution continues to progress at speed, it is evident that we are eroding the focus required to solve our society and our planet’s most complex problems.

This isn't merely about exhaustion, fatigue, and burnout; it's about jeopardising our ability to solve human challenges thoughtfully. In this hyperconnected era, reclaiming our attention and fostering deep focus isn't just a personal pursuit; it's an imperative for collective progress.

Please note: This website may contain references to, or feature images, videos, and voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who have passed away.

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