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No, the internet has not destroyed our attention spans

Friday, August 24, 2018

In 2015, Microsoft released a study claiming that the average human attention span had dropped to eight seconds, down from twelve in the year 2000, making us apparently more distracted than goldfish. These 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.

But a new study suggests that well before the invention of mobile phones, humans were a cognitively distracted species that can only focus on one thing in quarter-of-a-second blocks. This inability to focus isn't a flaw, but an evolutionary adaptation: Being able to flick between highly focused and diffuse attention gives us the ability to concentrate on a complex task while also being aware of our surroundings, making us the dynamic, hyper-alert creatures that we are today.

A team of researchers at Princeton University and the University of California-Berkeley studied the brains of humans and monkeys and found we concentrate in 250 millisecond blocks. The authors of the study use a metaphor to provide a clearer picture of how attention is possible when the bursts are so short: The brain is like a theater with a spotlight and house-lights, and it cycles between spotlight mode (attention focused on a single point on the stage), and house-light mode (attention is diffused over the audience). The constant transition from spotlight to house-lights creates a pulsating, strobe-like effect.

These findings contradict our subjective experience of the world, where attention and perception feel like a continuous phenomenon that persists over minutes, or if we're lucky, hours. But according to Sabine Kastner, a professor of psychology at Princeton, perception is actually discontinuous, "going rhythmically through short time windows when we can perceive more or less."

"Attention is fluid, and you want it to be fluid," lead researcher, Ian Fiebelkorn, said in a statement. "You don't want to be over-locked on anything. It seems like it's an evolutionary advantage to have these windows of opportunity where you're checking in with your environment."

Read More: No, the internet has not destroyed our attention spans

Here's scientific proof your brain was designed to be distracted

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Laser focus leads to success, or so they say. Except it actually doesn't. Researchers have found that rather than being laser-like, attention is actually more akin to a spotlight that continually dims and comes back on again.

The research, conducted on humans and macaque monkeys, concludes that our ability to focus is designed to work in bursts of attention, rather than uninterruptedly. For instance, while it may seem that you are continuously focusing on reading this article, the reality is that you're zooming in and out of attention up to four times per second.

The findings, the result of work carried out by scientists from Princeton University and the University of California, Berkeley are published in the journal Neuron. The researchers found that in between those bursts of attention, we are actually distracted. During those periods of distraction, the brain pauses and scans the environment to see if there is something outside the primary focus of attention that might be more important. If there is not, it re-focus back to what you were doing.

"The brain can't process everything in the environment," explains Ian Fiebelkorn, an associate research scholar at the Princeton Neuroscience Institute (PNI) and one of the authors of the paper. "It's developed those filtering processes that allow it to focus on some information at the expense of other information."

Read More: Here's scientific proof your brain was designed to be distracted

Your brain tries to change focus four times per second, study finds

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

By the time you're finished reading this sentence, your brain will have rapidly assessed your surroundings 14 times to see if you should focus on something else. At least, that's what new research suggests.

This is a departure from the way we typically think our brains hold attention—neuroscientists have suggested that neurons fire in a consistent stream when you're focusing on one thing (like reading this Gizmodo blog, for instance). The new research suggests it instead has a kind of rhythm, where neurons become less active four times per second. During those little blips, the researchers suggest your brain visually checks your surroundings for something more important to pay attention to—like maybe something exceptionally threatening (a clumsy coworker about to douse you in hot coffee) or interesting (a dog in the office).

"Your brain's checking in on the rest of environment to see if it should focus on something else," Ian Fiebelkorn, a study author and cognitive neuroscientist at Princeton University, told Gizmodo. "Not that it unfocuses, but to see if something else beats out your current focus."

Read More: Your brain tries to change focus four times per second, study finds