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Is our attention span truly rivaling that of a goldfish in this age or is there still hope for the highly evolved Homo Sapiens? Neuroscientists argue that the increasing influence of technology in our everyday lives has persistent detrimental impacts on the human brain’s cognitive functions in particular on attention.
Are the Technophobes right?
How many of you have your parents take your phones before exams? Our youth takes pride in multi-tasking, browsing through the YouTube homepage while sending out that very important email. Multitasking itself is a cognitive function that requires acute use of divided attention but is digital multitasking enhancing or dividing our attention? Neuroscientists Junco and Cotton conducted a study on the effect of digital multitasking on students’ learning. Their results show that the more students engaged in multiple activities in digital environments, the worse their academic performance was.
A questionnaire was circulated to identify heavy media multitaskers from light media multitaskers to test whether media multitasking may improve short-term memory, task-switching, and ignoring distractions. The results were quite contrary to the hypothesis with heavier media multitaskers performed worse on the series of cognitive tasks.
Prolonged exposure to technology is changing our information absorption ability. We are now becoming “cognitive off-loaders”, i.e. we prefer to memorize where the information is stored instead of the information themselves. Our voluntary engagement with task materials is constantly interrupted by elements specifically designed to capture involuntary attentional processes like popups and ad banners. Advertisements and other forms of “persuasive technology” also join this list.
Newsfeeds and videos that are less than 10 minutes have rewired our cognitive pathways. Our brains are learning to scan information and pick out what appears “significant” whilst disregarding the rest. Rather than deep-reading articles, we focus on snippets and form our mental key takeaways. This has led researchers to fear that our brains will remain no longer capable of sustained concentration such as that the one required to read novels, and the key skills needed for critical thinking and long-term learning are being replaced by a shallow engagement due to our split attention spans!
Phone Away and Work
Ever heard the ‘ping’ of a new WhatsApp notification when our phone isn’t really receiving a notification? If so, congratulations, you’ve been experiencing phantom vibrations. A study in 2012 found that 89% of the 290 undergraduates surveyed reported feeling “phantom vibrations,” the physical sensation that their phones were vibrating, even when they were not once every two weeks.”
Notifications are specifically designed to attract a user’s attention from the more important task at hand. A more recent study by Adrian F. Ward found that the mere presence of a mobile phone, but not its use, can reduce cognitive capacity. So, you really should leave your phone with your mother before attempting that online quiz.
The Fault in Our Evolutionary Development
The American Psychological Association conducted studies to understand how we multitask and found that multitasking or task-switching takes a toll on our productivity. Authors of “The Distracted Mind” explain why our brains aren’t built for multitasking. According to them, the human brain is limited in its ability to pay attention and we don’t really multitask but rather switch rapidly between tasks… “It is critical to understand that our sensitivity to interference was not born out of technology. Rather, it is a fundamental vulnerability of our brain.” Eric Baker further explains that our brains are adept at seeking new information without being good at following through because of how the information-seeking part is stronger and mightier than the “cognitive control” part that allows us to complete tasks.
Is there any New Hope?
Technology cannot entirely be locked in a box and dropped into the Nile. There have been several goods “put to good use” cases of technology usage. Recent groundbreaking studies found that video gamers had superior attentional abilities on several standard cognitive tasks, such as ignoring distracting information and attending to information over time compared to non-gamers. A study on a novel game, “Decoder”, proved that participants who played this game reported significantly improved sustained visual attention. Furthermore, social story and picture schedule applications have been helping children on the autism spectrum and those with ADHD to improve their attention spans. These are effective non-pharmacological methods for enhancing attention in healthy young adults, which could be extended to clinical populations in which attentional problems persist.
In conclusion, technology plays the role of an enabler. It is what we use it for that matter. The difference lies between searching for the Reddit login or Google Scholar in the same search bar. Though according to all the fore-mentioned evidence, technology has disrupted our attention spans as we look to shorter and crisper contents, so the latter really is preferably recommended.
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