In the late 1850s, before he was president, Abraham Lincoln engaged in a series of debates with Stephen Douglas, his opponent in the race for one of Illinois’s senate seats.
The famed Lincoln-Douglas debates had strict rules governing the time each man was allowed to speak—sort of like Twitter’s 280-character limit, except totally not like Twitter’s 280-character limit. Back then, the first speaker was allowed 60 minutes to make his argument. His opponent was then allowed 90 minutes to speak—60 to argue his side of things, 30 for rebuttal—before the first speaker was given a final 30 minutes to rebut. Then they’d move on to the next topic.
“So each topic was discussed for three hours,” says Brian Primack, a professor of medicine and director of the Center for Research on Media, Technology, and Health at the University of Pittsburgh. “Now compare that to today, where the average political soundbite is probably seven or eight seconds—if that—and I think the differences are really stark.”
Since at least the mid-1990s, people who study the Internet and its related technologies have recognized that screens tend to change the way our brains absorb and process information. Take this excerpt from a 2005 study, referring to research conducted in 1994 and 1995: “Screen-based reading behavior is characterized by more time spent on browsing and scanning, keyword spotting, one-time reading, non-linear reading, and reading more selectively, while less time is spent on in-depth reading, and concentrated reading." The study's author, Ziming Liu, a professor of library and information science at San Jose State University, also noted a decrease in sustained attention. Liu's study found that roughly 50 percent of people surveyed believed their attention spans had shrunk as a result of screen-based media, while just 16 percent thought the opposite. There’s no shortage of these self-reported or correlational studies linking new media use to attentional drawbacks, either.
For instance, a 2016 study from Finland found heavy media multitaskers—those who tend to do two things at once on their devices, like watching videos while texting, or listening to podcasts while surfing the internet—are more easily distracted than people who tend not to media-multitask. A similar study found media multitaskers struggle when asked to focus on an audio or video clip while a second piece of media is playing.
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There’s also plenty of research showing that the human brain finds it difficult to ignore device-based beeps and buzzes, or to get back on track after these distractions occur. One 2011 study found brief mobile phone interruptions—incoming calls, texts, or alerts—can cause a four-fold delay in the time it takes a person to complete a task. And a rash of recent media reports—many of them featuring former Google or Facebook engineers—have revealed that much of the Internet has been purposefully designed to make users addicted.
Some Internet-based innovations, such as the “infinite scrolling” made popular by social media sites have bled into other forms of new media—like the way Netflix now auto-plays a new episode or related program the second the show you’re watching ends. But quantifying just how much new technologies sap our focus and attention is tall order.
“We don’t have any firm numbers,” says Lee Hadlington, a senior lecturer at De Montfort University in the UK. Hadlington is author of a 2015 study that found heavy Internet and mobile phone users tend to be “less resilient” to distraction. These heavy users also tend to experience high rates of “cognitive failure,” which Hadlington defines as “errors or general slips of attention that can occur to everyone in daily life.”
But Hadlington’s findings are strictly correlational—meaning it’s possible that people who engage in heavy internet use had poor attention spans to begin with. “We don’t have the power to say that the internet actually causes poorer attentional control,” he says. “We just know there is a link there somewhere.”
These sorts of “correlation is not causation” warnings are common among technology researchers (and scientists in general). And they’re not to be dismissed. But brain-imaging studies further cement the links between heavy tech use and poorer attention span. “Engaging in heavy media multitasking might be altering our brain structures,” says Kep Kee Loh, a doctoral researcher at France’s Stem-cell & Brain Research Institute.
Lee is author of a 2014 PLOS One study that found media multitasking was associated with reduced gray-matter density in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC)—a part of the brain that manages attention, as well as emotion and information processing.
“Reduced ACC sizes have been implicated in cognitive and emotional control disorders, such as obsessive compulsive disorder, Internet addiction, and depression and anxiety disorders,” Loh says. “And interestingly, other studies have also associated heavy media multitasking with reduced cognitive control and more negative emotional-social well-being.
Loh is quick to add that his research—like Hadlington’s—does not prove media multitasking and tech use changes a person’s brain. His observations are correlational. But, he adds, the human brain is “plastic” and susceptible to structural changes based on “our daily experiences and training.” So there’s reason to believe that heavy media use could actually be causing the drop in ACC volume.
“Our brains are constantly evolving and pruning synapses based on our experiences,” Primack says. Referring to the types of cognitive tasks we perform each day, he says, “connections that are not used are lost, and connections that are made are emphasized. So there are theoretical reasons—and some empiric results out there—that show when you’re exposed to briefer chunks of information, your brain becomes more used to that and it becomes harder to sustain attention over time."
This is both good news and bad news: The bad news is that, if our attention spans are shrinking in response to new technologies, so too may be our abilities to perform the complex, nuanced cognitive tasks that help us make sense of ourselves and our world. “Without practice, our brains begin to lose these talents for deep thinking or maintained focus, says Nicholas Carr, author of The Glass Cage and The Shallows—books about the ways the internet and technology are changing us. “When we opt for the convenience or ease technology offers, we’re denying ourselves the ability to create rich talents.”
The good news is that the same brain plasticity that may allow technology to abbreviate our attention spans should also allow us to undo those changes. If too much screen-based skimming and multitasking stunts attention, spending time in deep, focused thought should have the opposite effect. And in fact, research on mindfulness and other meditative practices suggest that, yes, the brain is like a muscle in that its ability to focus can be strengthened with practice.
Even if you can’t see yourself practicing formal meditation, it’s likely that reading a book, listening to music, or avoiding email and other distractions while you work could help your brain redevelop some of its attention span. “The way we’re presented with information today is just so much different than it was 40 or 80 or 100 years ago,” Primack says. The trick now is harnessing the awesome power and convenience of technology, without giving up too much of our brainpower in the bargain.
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