How to Reclaim Our Dwindling Attention

Originally posted on LifeApps

Our attention is a precious resource granted to us through evolution. But modern technological life is shrinking our attention span at an unprecedented rate. Using the three tips in this post, you can reclaim your attention for a more productive, creative and fulfilling life.

We have a finite daily supply of attention that must be allocated to the tasks that we deem worthy each day. This act of prioritization can be a fine balance between work, family and social aspects of our life, otherwise we burn out the cognitive capacity of our brain. Our ability to consciously attend to different tasks derives from what is believed to be one of the earliest evolutionary adaptations of the human mind [1]. But the increasingly complex nature of our technologically-driven society is dysregulating this attention balance, which is severely impacting our productivity, our interpersonal connections and ultimately our happiness. In this post, we will explore the evolutionary history of attention, explain its modern downfall and provide three tips that will help you reclaim your attention to improve your day-to-day life.

Attention – our ability to selectively filter out perceptual information from our surroundings [2].

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Paying attention to singular tasks or aspects of our experience in the modern world can feel like walking a slack line. It can be difficult to cut out the noise, but both invigorating and peaceful when we find it.

Our Ancestors’ Attention

The ability of our primate ancestors to be highly attentive to their environment and biological needs was an extremely beneficial skill in the middle of Africa’s ruthless, primordial jungles. A dim crunch of dead leaves may have been the only warning of an approaching leopard stalking its prey. A faint sweet smell and spot of color may have hinted at a sugar-packed bounty of fruit off in the distant treetops. Extended focus may have been the only way to learn complex skills such as fire and toolmaking [3]. In this context, attention was essential for survival.

The evolved attention of our ancestors can be studied by proxy through the behaviour of our closest relative, the chimpanzee. The lifestyle of chimpanzees has stayed relatively similar to their last common ancestor with humans, whereas our environment has changed dramatically. This may have implications for our attention span.

long-term study by a Japanese research group highlighted the incredible attention and short-term memory of chimpanzees, which blows our brain’s capability in these areas out of the water [4]. From an early age, chimpanzees were taught the sequence of numbers from 1 to 9. In a test designed to assess the chimpanzees’ working memory (a cognitive system responsible for temporarily holding information available for processing), numbers from 1 to 9 were shown on a screen in varying locations. The participating chimpanzee would be rewarded with food if it could select/tap the numbers in the correct sequence from 1 to 9; however, after 1 was pressed, the numbers would be obscured and the chimpanzee would have to rely upon its memory of where each number had been located on the screen. Despite this hurdle, chimpanzees showed an astonishing capacity to recapitulate the sequence of numbers, to an extent that is basically impossible for a human to match. Have a look at the video below to see if you too are outperformed by a chimpanzee!

Or watch here.

Trading Brain Power

This phenomenon is known as the Cognitive Trade-off Hypothesis [5], and in the video Michael Stevens outlines how we lost our cognitive ability to quickly store and regather information from our brain, trading it for other important functions such as complex speech and forward thinking. Now, you may be thinking that I’m downplaying these evolutionary adaptations that skyrocketed humans out of the mire of Africa’s jungles and to the top of the food chain, conferring cognitive abilities that generated the global civilization that is human society. No, these are obviously essential capabilities that led to the human cultural revolution and launched us to the position of global ascendancy that we enjoy currently.

But our complex cognitive abilities came at a cost to our memory and attention.

The human brain’s diminishing capacity for attention and short-term memory is not new. This change extends back to 6-7 million years ago, to our last common ancestor with chimpanzees [6]. The cognitive trade-off between complex thought and attention set us on a trajectory that was highly successful for our species, judging by our position on the global stage; the intellectual benefits outweighed the diminished memory and attention costs. But we have entered a period of human history where these evolutionary directives are predisposing us to widespread cognitive overload, driven in part by the sudden explosion of technology.

Technological Brain Drain

Technology has rapidly opened our world to an overabundance of information, in the form of the 24-hour news cycle, invasive advertisements and social media. We now live in a world where a major challenge is not gathering sufficient data to make an informed decision, but rather sifting relevant information out of the plethora of background noise. This new imperative puts serious strain on our attention, draining our focus at a faster rate than any previous point in history.

Most of us have probably heard the analogy that our brain is a sponge for information. While we sleep overnight, our brain is reloaded with the ability to absorb information. Once we wake up, each time we access information online or from conventional media outlets, the tap is turned on and our brain soaks up the information. To carry on the analogy, when we scroll through social media for extended periods of time, this is like leaving a tap running with minimal knowledge gain. This common behaviour is overloading our ability to focus on more important tasks that require our attention and brainpower.

Your brain has a finite capacity for attention and memory – do you want to fill it up with junk or with quality material?

Benefits of Attention

Focused attention is a cultivatable skill that forms the foundation for many activities throughout our lives, whether in the workplace, during free time leisure activities or at home with the family. Attention has a positive effect on our productivity, work quality and decision making [7]. A more productive work life naturally leads to higher work engagement, life satisfaction and general wellbeing.

In addition, when your mind is quieter and more focused with less distractions, there’s more space for your creativity to flourish and generate innovative ideas. Moreover, attention in a social setting, such as active listening, is a great way to develop a stronger connection with people you interact with [8].

Active listening involves restating a paraphrased version of the speaker’s message, asking questions when appropriate and maintaining moderate to high nonverbal conversational involvement. [8]

Reclaim Your Attention

The jury is out on the impact of attention on everyday productivity and wellbeing; science says attention is paramount. So how can you reclaim the evolutionarily-granted skill of attention that has been dwindling since the start of the technological era? In this post, we have three tips that you can integrate into your everyday life to help cultivate attention.

1. Reclaim idle time. Harking back to the idea of your brain as a sponge for information, idle time (sitting on the bus, waiting in line for a coffee, etc.) spent on social media or reading superfluous media articles leaves the tap of information running all throughout the day. Alternatively, use this cognitive free time to give your brain a break to recharge for the next installment of attention. (It’s kind of like intermittent fasting to give your body a break from sugar and insulin!)

Shut off the running tap of information in your idle time by replacing social media scrolling with free time for your brain.

feeling sleepy
Reclaim idle time by taking time for mindful breathing and tuning into your present experience even during “boring” transition times during the day, when it is easy to reach for your phone.

2. Attention switching. A recent study found that when someone is distracted from a task, it takes on average 23 minutes to regain the same level of attention on that task as before they were distracted. To combat this effect, each time your attention is shifted between tasks (either involuntarily from a colleague talking to you at your desk, or when moving on to a new task), take a moment to clear your mind with a couple of breaths. Let go of the previous task and mindfully refocus your attention on the next task.

Be aware that multi-tasking is scientifically-proven to make you output lower quality work.

3. Mindfulness meditation. Both of these previous tips can be viewed as informal applications of meditation, a practice that typically involves mindful attentiontowards your surroundings, body, breath and the thoughts that arise in your mind. Mindfulness helps to reclaim your idle time, encouraging engagement with your surroundings and experiences outside of your phone screen. On the other hand, meditation is a practice that is geared towards being aware of a distraction arising in your mind, and decidedly shifting your attention back to your breath. This form of brain training is the most scientifically-backed method to regain your evolutionarily-developed attention.

Mindfulness meditation is brain training to be aware of and refocus your attention once you’ve lost it.

Start employing these tips in your daily life, and watch as you reclaim your attention to be applied across a whole range of work, social and personal areas. With this newfound attention, you can choose whether to use your finite attention for information overload on the Internet, or for things that will positively impact your life.

References

  1. Tooby J, Cosmides L. Toward Mapping the Evolved Functional Organization of Mind and Brain. Found Cogn Psychol. 1995;1185–98.
  2. Norman DA. Memory and attention: An introduction to human information processing, 2nd ed. Memory and attention: An introduction to human information processing, 2nd ed. Oxford, England: John Wiley & Sons; 1976. xiii, 262–xiii, 262.
  3. Anderson K, Wilkins J. Tools of the Trade: Methods, Techniques and Innovative Approaches in Archaeology [Internet]. University of Calgary Press; 2009.
  4. Inoue S, Matsuzawa T. Working memory of numerals in chimpanzees. Curr Biol. 2007;17(23):1004–5.
  5. Matsuzawa T. Symbolic representation of number in chimpanzees. Curr Opin Neurobiol. 2009;19(1):92–8.
  6. Choi CQ. Fossil Reveals What Last Common Ancestor of Humans and Apes Looked Liked[Internet]. Scientific American. 2017.
  7. Mark G, Iqbal S, Czerwinski M. How Blocking Distractions Affects Workplace Focus and Productivity. In: PROCEEDINGS OF THE 2017 ACM INTERNATIONAL JOINT CONFERENCE ON PERVASIVE AND UBIQUITOUS COMPUTING. 2017.
  8. Weger H, Castle Bell G, Minei EM, Robinson MC. The Relative Effectiveness of Active Listening in Initial Interactions. Int J List. 2014;28(1):13–31.

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