The media is full of scare stories about how Twitter and other new technologies are shrinking our attention spans. But there could be hidden benefits to our busy, distracted livesby John Naish / November 18, 2009 / Leave a comment
American pop group Forever the Sickest Kids: releasing mini-albums for young fans who lack focus
Kerry McCarthy MP is Labour’s Twitter tsar, with the job of pushing 140-character messages towards busy internet users. But her own life, it seems, is too frantic for much more than even this tiny task. “While I might be able to summon up the energy to tweet of an evening, composing a blog post is somewhat beyond me,” she confesses. And if our newspapers are to be believed, McCarthy is hardly alone.
In the popular imagination, ours is a generation unable to focus, encircled by diversions and fuelled by an ever-quickening media culture. While there is a lot of truth to this, the wilder assertions about our fast-moving world may be exaggerated: after all, the majority of British people don’t use Twitter (see our poll, p37), and most of us lead lives nowhere near as stressful as that of a Labour MP. Yet it is undeniable that catching our attention is becoming less and less easy in a world with ever more channels and websites.
The problem, as neuroscience reveals, is that humans are rotten multitaskers. An often cited 2001 study by psychology professor David Meyer at the University of Michigan examined the brains of young adults performing multiple tasks, like solving maths problems or classifying geometric objects. He found that our brains don’t spread attention across tasks, but flip back and forth between them. This demands extra cognitive effort, draining mental focus away from the tasks themselves. The more distraction, the less attentive we become.
This is stressful for individuals, but potentially ruinous for those trying to sell us things. Marc Stewart, guitarist with American rockers Forever the Sickest Kids, says his band will now release three mini-albums, each a few songs long, every six months. The aim is to connect with the group’s 13-24 year-old fans who, Stewart says, have “short attention spans.”
Meanwhile the board game maker Hasbro has begun marketing accelerated versions of its bestselling games, Monopoly and Scrabble, with the slogan “take a 20-minute game break.” The new Scrabble Express only has two words on the board at any one time, while the “Q” tile has been replaced with “Qu.” Monopoly Express is missing the hotels, chance cards, and even cash (which is replaced by a cash-machine card). Who has time to count notes? Phil Jackson, head of Hasbro’s…