As you enter that next reminder in your phone, do you find yourself questioning why your brain seems to be overloaded all the time and why simple reminders like “defrost the chicken” seems to need the mental backup of being entered in a technological device?
New research suggests that this is a rapid change happening within society because there simply isn’t enough space left in our collective attention. Where once we felt like we had enough mental reserves and the capacity to keep everything orderly within our own minds or with the help of a planner, now it seems like we may be slipping backwards. It’s easy to feel like our brains aren’t up to par like the generations before, but a new study suggests that we shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves.
This is happening on a societal level. Supporting a previous hypothesis that our collective attention span is narrowing, researchers at the Technical University of Denmark have found concrete evidence of the “social acceleration” phenomenon. As we’ve advanced, information about anything and everything, along with social media and the effects of always being plugged in, have started to overwhelm our attention spans. It’s not that our attention spans are any more or less than in those generations before us: simply, there is so much information coming rapidly towards us that the competition for attentional space has increased.
This acceleration of information means that there’s always something new to mentally digest, and it causes us to change focus and divert attention in an unprecedented way. This has led to the exhaustion of our collective attention span, which as therefore led to a narrowing of attention. It’s not necessarily based on the merit of what we should be paying attention to—it’s that we’re losing interest much faster than we have before because our brains are trying to make space for that next incoming material.
With only so much mental resource devoted to attention, we’re all a little strung out when it comes to our attention these days. It’s not that we’re reliant on our technology and can’t think for ourselves anymore; it’s that we’re now experiencing how our technology and our all-access passes to information has changed all of us.
ReferencesLorenz-Spreen, P., Mønsted, B.M., Hövel, P. et al. Accelerating dynamics of collective attention. Nat Commun 10, 1759 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-019-09311-w