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.

26 Comments

  1. I think this is a combination of many things. It is the result of a vicious circle.
    I will start in early childhood and work through.
    You have a generation of children who were never read to by their parents – or who read together with their parents.
    These children were/are plonked in front of the TV from an early age to amuse them/give mummy and daddy some peace and quiet.
    A lot of these children are also fed junk food high in additives and sugars.
    When I was at school 8 O’Levels (16 year old exams) were the norm – today 12 plus is not unusual. 3 A levels and maybe if you were very good at one subject an S level was the norm – now 5 is not uncommon.
    These children grow up into hyperactive/restless adults who often have the attention span of a gnat who then pass on all their bad habits to another generation.
    A lot children inherit values and attributes from their parents. It is very difficult for some to buck the trend and break out of the mold – it takes the exceptional ones to do so.
    I would argue that over the last 50 years we as a society have gone through the following – which have all contributed to this.
    Dumbing down of education – introduction of more subjects – less time spent on core subjects and shorter lessons to cram them all in to the school day.
    Television – instant entertainment – loss of time to read.
    Video games – loss of time to read
    Two parents working = less time for children
    Baby/children parking = less time with parents.
    Fast food instead of real food – all the additives/colorings and the effect they have on the human body.
    The rise of consumerism – the chasing of the dollar to provide the new TV, the new car, the new washing machine and pay the child minder.
    Change in working patterns/job mobility – we very rarely have a job for life these days – we no longer have that security.
    Break up of the extended family – when my mother was not around to read, or sew my grandmother was.
    I think ADD and ADHD is a symptom of our times.
    (Is there any research out there of incidence by country on this?)

  2. Wowser! Love the response, Nicola, and it all makes perfect sense to me. I don’t think we’re born with bad attention spans. I do think, as you argue, that the lack of attention is learned from the parents. It takes time to read to a child — and to then have a child read to you — and busy parents are more interested in the video game and the sports contest than making sure their children know how to concentrate and think.
    Some say the internet is a great remedy because it teaches people to enjoy reading again — but my experience with students and the internet is not that but one of a “washing over” looking for something to copy instead of expand upon. These students are not reading more, they’re skimming more, in order to process more information that will give them a precise, by rote, answer instead of collecting several ideas and then binding them into a singular argument.
    Here’s a page that lists international ADD ADHD support groups — so the trend must be expanding — and that’s bad for the world:
    http://www.addcoach4u.com/internationaladhdsupportgr.html

  3. In early 2002 when I was living in Israel and we spent one Shabbos in the West Bank area. I stayed with a family with one son. At one point I saw the child playing with some simple toy. I asked if he had some toy that was pretty popular at the time and he told me that he only gave his child simple toys that did not have fancy bells and whistles, nor did he have a television. He wanted to keep his children able to focus on the simple black and white text for hours at a time and to him, this was the way to do it.
    About three and a half years ago I started the Daf Yomi program, doing the front and back of one page of the Babylonian Talmud every day for a period of seven and a half years; doing so would ensure that the entire set of the Talmud would be learned from beginning to end. When I first started I had some trouble focusing for longer periods at a time but slowly I worked my way up.
    It’s like anything else; training yourself is possible. Just like people start by doing only one chin up at the beginning of a workout program and then, ten weeks later, are doing ten chin ups, people start with 18 minutes of focus and then work their way up to 19, 20, 21, etc. It’s a matter of willpower and dedicating yourself to improving that focus.

  4. That list of support groups is quite telling – all from Westernized countries with the exception of two.
    Maybe this is because this is an English speaking site and they do not link or pick up links to non English speaking sites or just maybe in societies that are not governed by the conditions I mentioned are free of this condition.
    A bit like Katha was saying there is no word for depression in the Indian language in our discussions on depression. I am wondering if countries or cultures that have not reached our stage of “development” have also missed out on ADD and ADHD.

  5. I do think, Nicola, that ADD and ADHD are convenient, modern, medical labels to get parents off the hook for their lack of parenting skills: “It’s isn’t ME! It’s my KID! Look, I’ll show you the medication.”
    ADD and ADHD are all about selling pills and filling in insurance reimbursement forms. Nothing more.
    When I was younger there was no such thing as ADD and ADHD. If you couldn’t pay attention or sit still you were given discipline by your parents or your school or even the neighbor next door. You learned how to be quiet. You learned how to sit down for long periods of time. Now? It’s a free-for-all where kids roam and do as they please.
    I was never allowed to wander on my own in public. I had to stand by my mother’s side or sit near her. I was not to speak unless I was asked a question. You learn how to entertain your mind for long periods of time when there is nothing to do but sit. Meditation becomes a part of your life and you learn how to be quiet and disappear and that is a necessary and vital skill when large groups of people come together to hear each other out.

  6. I would love to see some transcripts of these debates, if available. It would be great to recreate them and challenge people to learn something from them; whether that something is about our history or that something is about how they need to buckle down and train themselves to stay focused, they would certainly learn something!

  7. Hi David,
    The page looks bright! And, awesome article!
    As far as “attention span” goes – I think, it can be taught. I remember, actually I don’t remember it – but my mother told me how she used to read stories to me when I didn’t even learn to read myself. I mugged it up and used to repeat back. That formed my reading habit. Even today, my best option for relaxing is reading.

  8. Katha!
    Thank you for noticing our Paris look! I decided to change our “urban landscape” here every once-in-a-while to keep the eyes of surprise flourishing!
    I agree that focus and attention can be learned even in the most wild child beast.
    Reading is important because language is what civilizes us and when we read we leave our minds and live the life of another. We need that kind of “shoes stepping” to understand each other — but that takes dedication and a quiet mind to achieve.

  9. “When I was younger there was no such thing as ADD and ADHD. If you couldn’t pay attention or sit still you were given discipline by your parents or your school or even the neighbor next door. You learned how to be quiet. You learned how to sit down for long periods of time. Now? It’s a free-for-all where kids roam and do as they please.”
    Sums it up brilliantly – no distractions and no hyperactive cannot sit still mother – proper food too I expect and an example set by your mother.

  10. You’re right that food has declined, too, Nicola. High fructose corn syrup is everywhere now. Chocolate candy bars today taste nothing like the delicious treats of my youth.
    My mother was a 4th grade teacher for 30 years. She always said, “children crave discipline” and she gave it to me and she demanded it of her students. She was not well-liked in many kid circles for her iron fist that lacked the velvet touch and I was the one that got the blowback from her dissatisfied students…
    Today, people would argue that sort of hard discipline stunts kids emotionally and crushes their spirit of expression. “Kids should be kids and roam free.”
    Kids should be taught how to behave as kids so they can have a good behavioral life as an adult.

  11. I seem to remember in the 60’s a lot of the flower power generation let their kids have all the freedoms they did not have. Kids lost the structure to their lives and their behavioral patterns as well. Schools sprang up which were much less structured – maybe the start of the rot?

  12. Hi David!
    Who is watching Paris suspiciously?
    I agree with Nicola, the concept of ADD or ADHD is still alien here in India.
    I was not supposed to watch TV except cricket match/ Olympic games till certain age. My residential school life was absolutely regimented – it helped me some way, surely.
    I understand concentration needs practice and effort, “reducing attention span” seems to be an excuse of not putting the effort.

  13. Hi David,
    I would tend to agree that ADD and ADHD are essentially behavioral problems and are a cultural artifact of modern life. and chances are, that the way out is not to be found in a pill.
    Love the new image! That would have to be the view from the Notre Dame then.

  14. In the USA, Nicola, the 60’s did lead to relaxed parenting and the public schools were expected to provide the discipline instead of the parents. Then there was a bit of a revolt that the schools were being too hard and too strict and instead of wanting to fight the lawsuits, the schools had to give in to “community standards” and that’s when everything began to fall because the community standard was to let every kid find an individual path. You can’t teach a class of 30 kids 30 different ways, but that was the new expectation and it was, and is, a disaster.

  15. Katha —
    I think it’s either an escaped cathedral gargoyle watching Pairs… or the Hunchback of Notre Dame himself! SMILE!
    You are so lucky ADD and ADHD do not have a solid footing yet in India. It will destroy your country because people become “disabled” and “crippled” by their “diagnosis” and they don’t have to work as hard or pay as much attention because they’re medicated and they need extra special care.
    Even adults claim the ADD and ADHD disability beyond childhood and they wear it with pride because they get extra time on tests, special accommodation for bad behavior and they are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act and it is all very sad and medicated and perpetuated by a medical community that treats instead of confronts.

  16. Dananjay —
    ADD and ADHD are a pox on a culture because there’s no solid, biological, definition. If you’re squirmy and active as a child, you have ADD and you get a pill that dulls you down. Your sugar intake isn’t monitored and your caffeine intake is not considered.
    So we have an entire generation of child zombies. They’re dull and incoherent and their lives are being stripped from them by ignorant parents and by a medical community that lives to write a prescription for every tiny ill — real, perceived, or behavioral.
    You’re right! The POV we’re viewing from is, indeed, from the Notre Dame Cathedral itself! Excellent insight!

  17. Is it really a medical disorder David?
    Is there a way to know who is suffering from it who isn’t? I heard about this term for the first time in my life after landing in the USA and seriously, it surprised me.
    I didn’t understand why should I feel proud to announce that my concentration level/ ability is low…

  18. Hi Katha —
    There are supposed to be “behavioral” tests for ADD and ADHD, but I find most of the defining comes from frustrated parents that are no longer able to control their wild children. So, the doctor writes them a prescription to tamp down the kids and everyone is happy. Unfortunately, most of the kids do not respond well to the medication. They get tired. They lost their personality. They become zombie-like.
    People are always looking for ways to separate and create identity. If you are ordinary with no special talents to offer the world — if you can claim a disability, then you get special treatment under the law and you are provided easier expectations in school and in the workplace.
    What I wish these ADD and ADHD people would realize is that diagnosis quietly adversely affects them in real life because most employers want non-excuse workers that will show up, get the work done, and not be a bother to the company.

  19. I am posting this in its entirety as I think it is relevant ……….. I touches on a few of the things we have mentioned but adds a particular British flavor – particularly in how our education system/policy has been shooting itself in the foot. Sorry this is so long.
    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1080791/Dimming-How-brainpower-todays-14-year-olds-slipped-radically-just-generation.html

    Bright teenagers are a disappearing breed, an alarming new study has revealed. The intellectual ability of the country’s cleverest youngsters has declined radically, almost certainly due to the rise of TV and computer games and over-testing in schools. The ‘high-level thinking’ skills of 14-year-olds are now on a par with those of 12-year-olds in 1976. The findings contradict national results which have shown a growth in top grades in SATs at 14, GCSEs and A-levels. But Michael Shayer, the professor of applied psychology who led the study, believes that is the result of exam standards ‘edging down’. His team of researchers at London’s King’s College tested 800 13 and 14-year-olds and compared the results with a similar exercise in 1976….

  20. Love the article, Nicola, thanks! I had to redact it a bit because pasting an entire article is a Copyright violation. I’m so glad someone is doing hard research into the fall of overall mental capacity and your article reference provides stinging insights!

  21. Thanks for the edits David – I wasn’t sure how much I could or could not post under the copyright rules.
    The Daily Mail ran this as their main story in most editions.
    The on – line version has attracted over 130 responses/comments.
    I am also glad that someone is doing the research to prove what we already know and have been saying.