Why goldfish may deserve an apology

Lindy with a why

You probably won’t read to the end of my column. “Everyone knows” our attention spans are getting shorter and “people don’t read anything anymore”. In our world of fast-paced immediacy if it doesn’t grab us straight away, we just keep scrolling. TLDR. Too long, didn’t read. 

About five years ago Microsoft surveyed 2000 participants and studied the brain activity of 112 others using electroencephalograms (EEGs). Their findings? The average human attention span was down from 12 seconds to 8. Putting us 1 second behind the much-maligned goldfish.

The sort of information in this study, of course, is read in much detail by parents who worry for the attention spans of their progeny. As writer Oscar Shwartz wryly notes in an article for The Outline, “[Microsoft’s] findings came out at a time when psychologists, concerned parents, and Boomer pundits had just gotten over the novelty of having internet on phones and were starting to see how it was ‘destroying’ our brains. We were suddenly living in a world where one had to take trips to the Mojave or read long biographies of Winston Churchill to reclaim those four lost seconds.”

Science Daily reports that “In a more recent study on the increasing rates of change within collective attention, scientists studied Twitter data from 2013 to 2016, books from Google Books going back 100 years, movie ticket sales going back 40 years, and citations of scientific publications from the last 25 years. In addition, they gathered data from Google Trends (2010-2018), Reddit (2010-2015), and Wikipedia (2012-2017).

“They found empirical evidence of ever-steeper gradients and shorter bursts of collective attention given to each cultural item. This results in a more rapid exhaustion of limited attention resources. When comparing the global daily top 50 hashtags on Twitter, in 2013 a hashtag stayed in the top 50 for an average of 17.5 hours, in 2016 it’s 11.9 hours.”

Anecdotally, I just have to look at my own behaviour; choosing series over longer movies, Watching Facebook’s fast growing videos offering, where short clips of Jamie Oliver and Graham Norton can suck up my entire afternoon, and my reluctant downloading of TikTok for my eldest daughter, to which — in a cruel twist of fate (and much hilarity for her) — I am now addicted. All these short-burst attention grabbers, instantly forgettable, easily digestible. It wouldn’t seem a stretch to say that my attention span is shorter than it was and that the next generation are even more affected.

But then I read every word of an article online that runs to 3000 words. Or I read a wonderful novel. Or watch every dramatic minute of Les Misérables. It’s not that we are incapable of concentrating. Perhaps we choose our willingness to expend concentration based on the content and it’s perceived value to us. 

I would argue that this inability to focus isn’t a flaw, but an evolutionary adaptation: The ability to move between tasks that require high focus and ones that don’t makes us the successful, only marginally neurotic species that we are today. 

It gives us the ability to concentrate on a complex task while also being aware of our surroundings. We can drive our cars while planning our morning at work and making a mental note to pick up milk later, while singing along with our favourite song on the radio. The world is fast-paced and not everything requires total focus. 

Maybe the goldfish had it right all along. 

To read or download the full March issue PDF of the Chronicle, click here

To read the Editor’s column for March, click here

To read the most read article of the February issue, click here

Portal to the Jewish Community: to see a list of all the Jewish organisations in Cape Town with links to their websites, click here


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