A comprehensive Microsoft study is offering insights into how living in the digital age is affecting our ability to sustain attention, and how our brains are adapting to the constant flow of new stimuli. Although the results confirmed the suspicions that the information overflow is affecting our ability to focus on one task for long periods of time, the news isn't all bad, as it seems we're also training our brains to multitask more effectively.
From zen to multi-tabbing
When the dinner guest of zen master Thich Nhat Hanh offered to wash the dishes before enjoying some tea together, the master asked his guest if he truly knew how to wash the dishes. For, said the master, there are two ways of doing so: washing the dishes in order to enjoy a cup of tea later on, and washing the dishes in order to wash the dishes. If one washes the dishes the first way, then he also won't be able to enjoy the tea, as his mind will again be solely preoccupied with what comes next. But in the second way, even the simplest of tasks becomes enjoyable.
In the age of constant smartphone notifications, flashy ads and extreme multitasking, it seems that keeping a zen-like focus on a single task for extended periods of time is increasingly becoming an utopia. And because we know that our brains are remarkably flexible, adapting to our habits and environment, it's interesting to ask how people (heavy technology users in particular) are being affected by the digital age.
At first, it would be sensible to assume that the never-ending flow of stimuli is hurting our attention spans, as we quickly become accustomed to switching from watching TV, multi-tabbing our internet browsers and tinkering with our smartphones in a constant, addictive search for the next dopamine hit.
But a comprehensive study by Microsoft revealed that things aren't quite as black and white. Attention cannot be reduced to a single figure, because different tasks require different types of attention. The Microsoft study distinguished between three types of attention – sustained (maintaining prolonged focus during repetitive activities), selective (avoiding distraction) and alternating (efficiently switching between tasks), and set out to understand how factors such as social media usage and and multi-screening behavior affected different types of attention.
The research consisted of a comprehensive survey of 2,000 Canadians of all ages, along with in-depth neurological surveys to better quantify attention spikes. And although some results came out as expected, there were a few surprises.
The Microsoft data showed that our ability of sustain attention for long periods of time (the staple of meditative practice) does indeed seem to be dwindling. According to the study, the volume of media and social media consumption are the factors that most affect us in that sense: the heavier the use, the more sustained attention is adversely affected.
Microsoft speculates that the reason for this is probably the thrill of the new: we're suckers for novelty, and finding new information often makes connected users jump from one experience to the next.
But there is a silver lining: according to the data, higher use of social media, one of the very factors that damages sustained attention the most, is also increasing our ability to have short bursts of high attention.
You might think that spending more time online or with highly engaging media would train us to filter out distractions, but the researchers found this was not the case.
Age, gender and web usage don't seem to significantly impact selective attention. However, using a second screen (for instance, looking at your smartphone while watching TV) causes a very drastic drop in the ability to pay attention to what really matters. Heavy multi-screeners are, according to the study, very easily distracted, as they find it very difficult to filter out irrelevant information.
One explanation advanced by the researchers is that, whether you live in rural Africa or in busy New York City, survival depends on being able to focus on what’s important, and generally that is what's moving. This skill doesn't appear to have changed with our environment: it looks like it has simply moved to the digital world.
The Microsoft data also suggests that we're getting better at quickly and efficiently switching between tasks that require different cognitive skills. And while multi-screening was the main culprit for diminishing our selective attention, it seems it's also the single biggest contributor to improving our alternating attention, which is useful for multitasking more effectively.
According to the study, 76 percent of those interviewed between the ages of 18 and 24 report that multitasking is the only way they get things done. Once more, age and gender alone don't seem to significantly impact our ability to multitask, but multi-screening (and, to a lesser extent, social media usage) is correlated with an increased ability to multitask more efficiently.
Multi-screening also seems to improve overall attention, encoding to memory and, to a lesser extent, emotional involvement with the content we're being exposed to.
The middle way
Of course, too much of anything can be damaging. The survey also served to highlight that many people under 30 are showing signs of addictive behavior with respect to their smartphones. A staggering 77 percent of Canadians interviewed between the ages of 18 and 24 say they reach for their phone whenever nothing is occupying their attention; 52 percent say they check their phone at least every 30 minutes; and 79 percent say they use other devices while watching TV.
All in all, we can now say that a healthy and non-compulsive use of smartphones does indeed have some beneficial effects, and particularly as you're doing something else, as you're effectively training your brain to multitask.
But if you're driving, or in the middle of a meaningful eye-to-eye conversation, please stick to the zen way.
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