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Goldfish or Human? – Busting the Attention Span Myth

Photo taken by Bach Vu on Unsplash

Last updated on March 20, 2023

We have all heard it. Everywhere online, in conversation, spread between individuals like a closely kept secret. Except it hardly constitutes a truth, much less a secret. That’s right, I’m talking about the supposed shrinking state of the human attention span. In a world where we pit humans and goldfish against one another, the reality is that neither belief is correct.

The most fascinating thing is that all the claims comparing the goldfish and human attention span can be drawn to the same place. Statistic Brain—a company you have never heard of—lists numerics about the shortening attention span of humans in a vague way. They are the source the Consumer Insights team of Microsoft Canada references in their 2015 report that surveyed 2,000 Canadians. 

Human beings have different attention spans that are not universally the same. People with especially short attention spans often have ADHD or other related disorders. Even then, you do not find people with ADHD flitting around all day, unable to focus on a single task for a moment when everyone else has perfect attention; and that is the real issue with these studies. Most of them talk about this blanket shortening of attention spans. When really, some individuals can spend hours thinking about and doing the same thing and others can’t. 

Our brains are not built to multitask. Even if you try, you cannot do multiple things at once. It is the same with computers—as one task is handled, everything else fades to the background. As a result, humans are very oriented to moving from between tasks. This is to say, our brains are task selective. Distractions, such as technology, have a way of overwriting our tasks, which exists to show we need to relax.

Despite the un-credible data, many will still argue social media is rotting our brains. The short clips on Tik Tok make it harder for teenagers to focus. Gratification is as instant as the time we spend on any given post. It turns out, that isn’t even the case. No concrete evidence suggests this—and the logic against it is there. What is referred to as a short attention span is just divided attention. As mentioned, we’re unable to multitask but try anyway and end up less productive on both fronts because of information saturation. A study by the Technical University of Denmark explains this, framing it with the realization that using sustained or selective attention is getting more difficult—but our capacity to engage in both remains the same. In addition, there is more of the fear of missing out that keeps us locked on the newest trends and our screens than a lacking attention span.

Ironically, as Professor Felicity Huntingford, an expert on fish behaviors told the BBC, “[Goldfish have] become a model system for studying the process of learning and the process of memory formation, exactly because they have a memory and because they learn.”

Also—let us be clear—do we think we get an exact measurement for the attention span of a fish? No. 

At the end of the day, both humans and goldfish get underestimated. Neither one of us have the short attention spans made out to—much less because of social media. So the next time you find yourself distracted or engaged in this topic, remember it is more complicated than it seems and that attention spans are relatively stable. As proof, I sat down and wrote this in one sitting. Not so much of a goldfish. 

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