• Nicki M. Dakis

Your Brain On Overload

Social media may be killing our ability to pay attention. Researchers claim that the human attention span is now below that of a goldfish! According to a Microsoft report, the average human attention span was 12 seconds in 2000, and down to 8 seconds in 2013. (A goldfish’s attention span is 9 seconds.) The fact is, the more we participate in the rapid-fire pace of digital media, the more our brains will become more adept at short and stimulating over more focused tasks like deep reading and learning.

The same Microsoft report shows that there is a direct correlation between increased digital consumption (i.e. social media, playing games, browsing the web) and inability to focus. The problem is worsened by multi-tasking, especially “multi-screening” (e.g. simultaneously on a computer and a cell phone or watching t.v.). Multi-tasking was once thought of as a skill that we proudly put on a resume, but new thinking is that when our brain switches tasks, productivity is lost. Studies show that each time we are disrupted from a task that requires our complete attention, it can take up to 25 minutes to regain our focus.

Even when people believe they are only doing one thing at a time, they often have a quick look at their texts, emails, or social media accounts. Microsoft reports that 52% of 18 to 24 year-olds check their phones at least every 30 minutes. According to computer scientist Cal Newport, “even those very brief checks that switch your context even briefly can have this massive negative impact on your cognitive performance. It's the switch itself that hurts, not how long you actually switch”.

The problem is twofold: Our ability to sustain focus plummets when our brains get in the habit of jumping from subject to subject; and our working memories can only hold so much. Our brains absorb every headline, message, and photo that we see and hear. So, if a student is simultaneously trying to focus on schoolwork while intermittently processing a barrage of new information from their device, the ability for their brain to retain what they are studying is significantly reduced. Researchers Eyal Peer and Allesandro Acquisiti of Carnegie Mellon claim that “the distraction of an interruption, combined with the brain drain of preparing for that interruption, made our test takers 20 percent dumber. That’s enough to turn a B-minus student (80 percent) into a failure (62 percent)”.

Why is it so difficult to turn away from technology? Most humans enjoy the sense of connectivity and social support that social media offers (i.e. getting a “like” feels good). Fear of missing out or not being up to date with news and events (aka ‘fomo’) can be a cause of anxiety for some. And then there is the dopamine factor: The thrill of seeing or experiencing something new triggers the neurotransmitter that controls the brain’s pleasure centers. We keep surfing the web looking for more things to make us feel good.

Digital media is the culprit only so long as we allow it to be. The deterioration of sustained focus is reversible with some effort: Plan more person-to-person interactions; routinely read something that takes thought and concentration; keep distractions and interruptions to a minimum while you work; commit to doing one thing at a time; and don’t be afraid to unplug.

Studies show that each time we are disrupted from a task that requires our complete attention, it can take up to 25 minutes to regain our focus.

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