Information Overload, Distraction & the Devolving Attention Span
Updated: Sep 14
“…perhaps the greatest educational problem of today is how to teach people to ignore the irrelevant, how to refuse to know things, before they are suffocated.
For too many facts are as bad as none at all.”
– W. H. Auden
Information overload and constant distraction has become a way of life in today’s digital society.
The incessant firehose of new information coming at us from all angles, at all hours: texts, emails and notifications; ads, marketing and scams of all kinds.
One recent survey of cell phone users showed that the average person checks their phone almost 350 times a day. Another has email being checked 30x an hour and picking up calls to the tune of 1,500 times a week.
All added up, this reactionary behavior means everything that comes along sets the average person’s agenda day in and day out.
Sorry to ask the obvious, but how is anything else getting done?
The rise and fall of the attention span
Neuroplasticity is the idea that the human brain will change based on its environment, inputs and use.
Author Nicolas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, connects the rise of new technologies and physical changes in the human brain in response to use over time. Printing technology and growing literacy led the human brain to evolve more complex thinking and attentional control for prolonged concentration.
Reading led the brains of our ancestors – anyone born before the internet - to develop imagination and an impressive attention span.
Pathways in our brains are formed, reinforced or abandoned based on skills we use or no longer use. With the rise and domination of ubiquitous technology and its constant information and interruption, a new collective brain is evolving.
The human brain that once favored attention span and focus is so over.
The new brain instead is designed to scan and skim information quickly, with the majority of people no longer reading beyond a headline.
“The digital world is an unprecedented one and it could be leaving an unprecedented mark on the brain.”
– Susan Greenfield, neuroscientist
In 2000, the typical person could focus on something for 12 seconds. Now, that number is down to eight.
Unfortunately, goal-achievement and getting along effectively in life does still require the ability to hold it together long enough to get something done. In a culture where it has become harder and harder to concentrate and pay attention, brain scientists are sounding the alarm.
Neuroscientist Susan Greenfield, pegs the impact of constant technology use as mostly harming the brain’s ability to process information.
The ability to pay attention is made up of two parts.
Given the constant flow of information and all that competes for our attention, first we must be able to filter the important things from the irrelevant.
This ability to focus our attention is a psychological tool which helps us strategically ignore unimportant information in order to concentrate and achieve goals.
Secondly, once we have identified important things, we have to then secure this information in our memory, protecting things we need to remember from being overwritten by the vast majority of things we do not.
“What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”
– Herbert A. Simon
Overload and problems prioritizing information
Our attention is limited. Anything that has captured our focus, automatically means less attention available to anything else.
Brain scientist from MIT, Earl Miller emphasizes how single-minded we really are, capping the volume of thoughts one can hold in our mind at a time at two max.
According to Nicolas Carr, when inundated with constant stimuli and new information, often the thing that wins out is whatever’s next, whatever’s newest, regardless of import or relevance. Overload makes it more difficult to distinguish between important and not.
The brain leans towards novelty when it doesn’t know what to focus on.
Carr also notes that the ability to be a critical consumer of information, to discern what is true or not, is compromised when it’s coming so fast.
Professor and psychologist Mary E. McNaughton-Cassill studies stress and coping in our technological times. She says that information and stimulation overload and too many options leads people to seek shortcuts to help make sense of it all.
According to McNaughton-Cassill, people look to simplify ideas by searching for patterns and favoring opinions that already match and reinforce existing beliefs.
In this environment, the ability to prioritize is also being lost – as if everything coming at us is of equal value: the phone bill, the food coupon, the class schedule, a picture of someone’s breakfast, and on and on.
“It’s not information overload. It’s filter failure.” – Clay Shirky
The multitasking delusion
Neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin blames today’s information overload – all the texts, emails and social posts – for all the multitasking we do today.
There's a wide-spread delusion that in constantly handling multiple things at once, we are being oh so, efficient.
It’s called multitasking but research shows that in reality, it’s nothing-tasking.
Neuroscientist Miller of MIT, is an expert on the topic of divided attention. He says multitasking doesn’t exist. It’s actually task-switching and all tasks involved end up getting the short-shrift.
Stanford professor Clifford Nass and colleagues (2009) showed that multitaskers across multiple experiments performed worse, especially among those who are certain in their enhanced productivity.
Rather than actually doing multiple things at once, the brain is trying to rapidly switch from one to the other. New, often unimportant things relentlessly stop us in our tracks and force our attention to something else. The Stanford study showed that multitaskers were slowed by being less able to filter relevant from irrelevant information.
A Carnegie Mellon study showed that compared to those whose phones were turned off, students who received intermittent texts during a test performed 20% worse on average.
Rapid switching of attention on and off is difficult for the brain. Your brain has to try to pick up where it was. Trying to refocus takes even more cognitive effort and time. It’s called the switch-cost effect.
Going through our days and doing this as a way of life hampers our ability to concentrate and focus our attention when we need it.
“(Multitaskers are) suckers for irrelevancy. Everything distracts them.”
– Clifford Nass
Old-school, unplugged books beats tech for learning
Studies have shown that reading and learning in an environment uninterrupted by technology, leads to faster and better understanding and recall.
The ability to really pay attention is necessary for memory to work. Research has found that students with internet access during a class didn’t recall the lecture and their test performance reflected it.
The American Psychological Association (2011) found that excessive technology use goes beyond affecting the ability to concentrate but also harms decision-making, problem-solving and analytical understanding.
Russ Poldrack is a neuroscientist from Stanford who says that multitasking on a phone while trying to learn new information can cause it to be routed to the incorrect part of the brain. Instead of the hippocampus which helps categorize and organize information for long-term storage and later retrieval, that information is routed elsewhere or even worse, not at all.
Psychologist Betsy Sparrow and team (2011) found that knowing you could just look something up on the internet is in fact training the brain that it no longer needs to even form a memory in the first place. How lazy can a brain be?
If this keeps up, we may be headed for a time where everyone’s brain stops en masse when the wi-fi goes out.
Basic building blocks of humanity and connection at stake
As if you haven’t noticed, something is going wrong with people at some deep level.
The effect on the brain goes beyond focus and learning. All the tech over-use and distraction is negatively impacting other critical aspects of our humanity – namely, the essential development of empathy and a basic appreciation for how we impact others through our actions.
Research confirms that distraction and constant multitasking reduce the ability to develop empathy, experience complex emotions or form meaningful connections with others.
“Our brains adapt, but the process of adaption is value-neutral – we might get smarter or we might get dumber, we’re just adapting to the environment.”
– Joyce Schenkein, neuropsychologist
Reclaim the brain
The good news is that the brain, like a muscle, is malleable.
Despite a world hell-bent on driving focus and concentration to extinction, there is hope to reclaim your brain.
Top-down control over attention is intentional. It starts with backing off the bad habit.
Rather than constantly reacting or mindlessly scrolling, one-hour a day of limited, purposeful, conscious technology use is just the torturous regime that can help.
Unplugged periods, focused on a single thing helps exercise depleted attention spans.
Through practice, deep focus can return through reading books, deep face-to-face conversations and through spending time alone in nature.
The verdict is still out on the long-term impact of this mass brain rewiring experiment.
It may be that, someday, brain connections will be more important than anything.
It’s also possible that those that are strengthened or abandoned between now and someday, could be what makes all the difference.
“…while we’ve been upgrading the machines we’ve been downgrading humans: downgrading our attention spans, downgrading our civility and our decency, downgrading democracy, downgrading mental health.”
– Tristan Harris