There’s this modern myth about our attention span being really short, damaged by mobile phones and the internet. Usually these arguments are based on anecdotal-evidence, without any attempt at refuting them. So when I found this nugget in Donald A. Norman’s book Emotional Design, I had to share it:
Today it is customary to argue that short attention spans are caused by advertisements, video games, music videos, and so on. But, in fact, the ready distractibility of attention is a biological necessity, developed through millions of years of evolution as a protective mechanism against unexpected danger: this is the primary function of the visceral level. This is probably why one byproduct of the negative affect and anxiety that results from perceived danger is a narrowing and focusing of attention. In danger, attention must not become distracted. But in the absence of anxiety, people are easily distracted, continually shifting attention. William James, the famous philosopher/psychologist, once said that his attention span was approximately ten seconds, and this in the late 1800s, far before the advent of modern distractions.
Parts of this make more sense when read in the context of the book, but the two sentences that I higlighted really work on their own. In other words: Short attention spans isn’t a new problem at all and definitely not caused by the internet or mobile phones or any other modern media.
PS: Good article in the New York Times with, for some reason, the same title as this article. I hadn’t read itbefore posting this.