Humans now have a lower attention span than goldfish, according to new research. A study by technology giant Microsoft has found that we stay focused for a mere eight seconds – goldfish can manage nine – before we are distracted by phone calls, social media alerts or the news feed on our computers. Multitasking might give us an instant hit of gratification and make us seem more efficient, but it is having a detrimental effect on our productivity at work and our private lives.

So what are our devices doing to our brains – and how can we improve our concentration?

Throughout history, inventors have created devices without thinking closely about how people would actually use them, says Dr David Rock, author of Your Brain At Work.

“The car is an example. There were no road regulations or speed limits when people began getting behind the wheel, and life on the road was crazy until we set up rules that took human nature into account,” he says.

Today’s technology makes no allowance for how easily distracted we are, particularly by matters of a social nature, he says.

“We’re not respecting the processing limits of the brain,” says Rock, who believes we are suffering from “an epidemic of overwhelm”. “It’s a bit like the car. We can drive at 150mph but should we? We can process ridiculous amounts of information in a day but should we?” There are no rules governing the use of technology so it is up to us to self-regulate.

The Microsoft study reported that the average human attention span in 2000 was 12 seconds – four seconds more than today. Researchers found that the top four factors affecting our attention are media consumption, social media usage, technology adoption rate and multiscreen behaviour, such as watching television while texting. The survey, which was carried out on 2,000 Canadians over the age of 18 and included results from electroencephalograms, or EEG, placed attention span into three categories: sustained, which is prolonged focus; selective, which is avoiding distraction; and alternating, which is switching between different tasks.

Humans are actually very single-minded animals and can handle only two or three or maybe four cognitively demanding thoughts at one time
Earl Miller

We can’t really do multiple things at the same time, though – that is an illusion created by the brain, says Earl Miller, a professor of neuroscience at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in the United States.

“Humans are actually very single-minded animals and can handle only two or three or maybe four cognitively demanding thoughts at one time,” he says.

“When you think you are multitasking, what you’re actually doing is alternating, or switching back and forth, between different tasks.”

There are several problems with multitasking, Miller says. “You miss a lot of things. You think you are paying attention to the different tasks you’re doing, but you could be missing something in one task while you’re focused on another. You’re taking in very limited information in little snapshots, and your brain papers over all this. It integrates all these old snapshots into a unified whole, and because your brain can only take in little snapshots of the outside world, a lot of what the brain is doing is making predictions.”

He gives the example of driving while talking on a mobile phone. “You have the illusion that the road in front of you is empty because it was empty a few seconds ago, but if something has changed, you might have missed it while you are talking on the phone.” The brain predicts that the road is clear but it might not be.

The other difficulty, adds Miller, is what is known as the “switch cost”.

“If you are constantly switching back and forth, it takes time to get back to where you were originally. You have to back up a bit and there’s a cost in the quality and deepness of your thoughts.”

One recent study estimated that it takes the brain 15 to 25 minutes to get to where it was before switching over to check an email or take a telephone call.

Our brains evolved when humans were on the savannah, and a sudden noise or fleeting movement meant a predator was about to leap.

“The brain finds new information rewarding, and this worked well in a low-information environment – but it doesn’t work so well today when there is too much information,” says Miller. “If information is there, the brain is going to naturally orient to it so you have to be disciplined and get rid of those extraneous information sources.”

Even if we do try to limit our use of social media, our brains sometimes trick us: we suffer “phantom text syndrome”, in which we think we have just heard an alert from our tablets or smartphones.

Young people are particularly susceptible to this, says Paul Atchley, a professor of psychology at the University of Kansas. He says that, on average, teens text their peers twice as much as talking to them face to face, and they are much more dependent on technology than adults.

A lot of people are realising that the only way to be productive is to shut out the world for a few hours every day
 Dr David Rock

“There’s probably nothing more important to all humans, but particularly to teens, than social contact, and that little beep is like a tap on the shoulder at a party. It’s a sign that somebody you know and like is trying to contact you. So if teens are talking to their friends via text more than in person it makes sense that their brains are constantly monitoring for text messages and believe it is happening, even if it isn’t.”

If digital devices have a negative effect on prolonged focus, the best thing to do is switch them off, say the experts.

“A lot of people are realising that the only way to be productive is to shut out the world for a few hours every day. You literally have to turn off your phone and work with just one screen in order to do any deep thinking.

“In open-plan offices, you will already see people working with headphones on. If you do that for even 15 minutes a day, at the end of the month you’ll have dramatically better work done,” says Rock.

The brain is malleable and it can be trained to focus better, says Atchley.

“It really takes discipline to turn off devices and not pay attention to them. When you focus you’re using an area of the brain called the prefrontal cortex and you gain access to all sorts of things like creative thought, the ability to perceive more accurately the emotions of others and the ability to inhibit undesirable behaviours.

“People who aren’t focusing tend to be more impulsive, pay less attention to the subtle emotional cues of others and they’re not necessarily making those deep creative connections that lead to interesting insights. They can do most things relatively well, but when it comes to true excellence, you really need to be able to focus.”

How to get your focus back

  • Use the morning to do creative work that requires deeper thinking when your brain is still fresh and energetic. The rule should be hard work or creative projects first, urgent and important things second and emails and everything else third.
  • Take a break of three to five minutes every hour.
  • Do not underestimate the healing power of nature. A study by scientists at Heriot-Watt University and the University of Edinburgh in 2013 found that a walk in a green space can calm the brain and improve attention.
  • Do something unexpected such as rearranging your desktop so that your brain is stimulated and produces dopamine, which will help you focus.

Text: Barbara McMahon / The Times of London / News Syndication