Attention spans are in a growing deficit. That means we listen to each other less. We read less. We pay less attention in social learning circles like schools, business meetings and church sermons.
Science argues the average attention span dies at around 18 minutes. Some think the attention span begins to die at 10 minutes. Others believe the real concentration limit is more like 3-5 minutes.
I know teachers that break up a 90-minute class into 18 minute segments because students begin to tune out after minute 19. The argument these teachers use to defend the dumbing down of their lectures is that the students need a topic change — a brain re-boot — in order to clear out the building clutter of information their minds are unable to process and organize in a timely manner.
Instead of getting one, long, comprehensive lecture, students are instead spoon-fed tiny bits of important, but disconnected, information that doesn’t get linked to the larger enterprise. Information is taught in broken pieces with the hope the students will find a way to tie it all together into a larger mosaic on their own — but that rarely happens.
In Neil Postman’s fine book — Amusing Ourselves to Death — he reminds us that in the mid-1800s that people would come to listen to the Lincoln-Douglas debates that lasted over 10 hours. Listeners had no trouble providing a full and quiet concentration for hours.
To what do you attribute the lack of attention today?
Is it a rise in the diagnoses of ADD and ADHD — or were ADD and ADHD created to excuse the lack of concentration — and are we trying to falsely heal the lack of attention with medication?
Has television dumbed us down with its breaks for commercials every 6-9 minutes?
Do we blame the operator of the television remote control that empowers us to “never be bored” by switching channels at will instead of requiring us to learn coping skills that will bridge boredom and increase the felicity of our minds?
A hundred years ago most plays had Seven Acts and lasted three hours. Today, modern plays have Two Acts and end in under 90 minutes.
Has the internet stolen our ability to concentrate on one thing for more than a quarter of an hour? Is there any reason to concentrate, memorize, and remember when everything you find on the web can be saved, bookmarked and copy-and-pasted for later use?
If we become only gatherers and recorders of information instead of processors and evaluators of ideas, how can we ever feed our minds with facts and issues that matter?
Are we forever now unable to press our brains into making connections on their own that aren’t pre-fed by Google return results and the non-Action Streams of others?
Is it possible to increase an attention span once it has been lost? We risk boredom in tempting that endeavor and that training tempts shorter and shorter shots at expanding the patience of the mind.
Or are we forever future condemned — in a generation or two — to the 10 second attention span that will last no longer than a single spoken sentence or a passing glance at a visual warning against danger?
If our minds are now biologically hardwired to wander — should we be allowed to drive longer than 19 minutes?
Should we be allowed to — tend our children or vote in an election or fire a gun in an ongoing war — for more than 19 minutes?
How can we hope to remember anything for the well-being of our longevity when we are only able to concentrate in shrinking chunks of time?
Learning is attached to memory and memory is bound by concentration. When we lack, as a people, the ability to focus and pay attention, we fail to give greater meaning to our lives in the context beyond the here and now.