Attention! You’re Better than a Goldfish (Busting the Attention Span Myth)

Newsletter No.4

Dear LWP Readers,

The past week was a big week for yoga with the International Day of Yoga on 21 June. It was wonderful to see so many yogis and yoginis turn out to celebrate the unity of humanity in yoga – from Times Square to the Great Wall of China to yoga with PM Modi in Lucknow. I hope you enjoyed our special yoga features – you can always find them here in case you missed them.

(FYI, you can sign up to receive these newsletters via email every Sunday)

Weekend Thoughts: Attention! You’re Better than a Goldfish (Busting the Attention Span Myth)

In my fairly new role as a writer and the Editor of LWP, one topic that I spend quite a bit of time thinking about is the attention span of readers. Are human attention spans really shrinking drastically? It’s what the ‘authorities’ would have us believe.

Time magazine has declared that “You Now Have a Shorter Attention Span Than a Goldfish” and so have other media majors like the New York Times, Telegraph and many more. Countless blogs jumped on the bandwagon thereafter (especially those concerned with giving marketing advice) to spread the word all over the internet that humans are indeed lagging behind the goldfish with our average ~8 second attention span compared to the goldfish’s much more impressive 9 seconds. It’s sent marketing professionals all over the world in a frenzy to help media companies figure out ‘how to market to goldfish’. The result? Digital media content is becoming more and more ridiculous and diluted in an effort to pander to the slightest possible periods of attention.

Origins of the myth

The articles touting the claim that human attention spans underperform those of goldfish, refer to a non-peer-reviewed study by Microsoft’s Consumer Insights (Advertising related) division in Canada in 2015. However, there are several problems with treating this study as evidence.

Notably, the study itself states “Think digital is killing attention spans? Think again”. And in fact, the 8 second figure doesn’t come from this study at all, but is sourced to Statistic Brain which in turn refers to a 2008 paper by Harald Weinreich, Hartmut Obendorf, Eelco Herder, and Matthias Mayer: “Not quite the average: An empirical study of Web use”. This paper is not based on a study of human attention spans, but a study rather of web-surfing behaviour. PolicyViz and others have done a good job of deconstructing the attention span myth based on a review of the credibility of the data and statistics being quoted to justify the damning verdict on our ability to pay attention.

Further, the Microsoft study itself says that “connected consumers are becoming better at doing more with less via shorter bursts of high attention and more efficient encoding to memory”. This is an important factor. Maybe we are just becoming better at processing information and deciding whether or not we want to continue paying attention to something. This means that we’re not just ‘drifting’ when we move our attention away from something. On the contrary I would venture to say that we may be strengthening our powers of discrimination regarding what we give our attention to.

What is really happening?

This is what I think is really happening. With the democratisation of content creation, it’s easy as pie to create a website, make a video, create a social media profile etc. This naturally means that consumers are bombarded with ever more content and options to choose from. This naturally means that we sharpen our discrimination and will not give our precious attention to a video, say, when a minute into it we realise that the video is uninteresting, low quality or the speaker is, for lack of a better word, BS-ing. Digital marketers tracking our behaviour however, jump out of their seats at our appalling inability to commit our attention to bad content, shouting “goldfish!”

What’s the proof of my theory? Well there’s no study I could find to back this up (perhaps because it suits Microsoft, Google, Facebook and the like to have small and medium business owners believe that attention spans are shortening so that they will spend big dollars on marketing and advertising) but consider the following questions from your own experience.

– Do you have the ability to read through a long article or watch a long video on a topic that interests you?
–  Are you able to spend an entire weekend watching a series of a sitcom you love?
– Is it not a fact that gamers spend hours on end engrossed in games (take the recent Pokemon Go craze for example which reportedly caused 110,000 road accidents in the US in just 10 days because people were so fully engrossed in the game).
– Do you ever see people randomly walk out of a movie theatre because of an inability to pay attention to a movie they are interested in?
– How many more people do you know that practice yoga or meditation (which involves focused attention) today than say 10 years ago (according to US government statistics, the number of American adults who do yoga nearly doubled between 2002 and 2012)?
– What about the astounding success of the Harry Potter series that had millions glued to the books for days and weeks?

My take is that the ease of content creation today makes it necessary for people to sift through it with a finer sieve which behaviour marketers interpret as shrinking attention spans. What’s more, such thinking is even seeping into other fields like litigation advocacy with lawyers trying to keep the juror’s apparently afflicted attention engaged with all kinds of tactics!

Phew, you’re not a goldfish!

So, in my view, people are not wandering off from a webpage because they’re unable to pay attention or because ‘attention’ is being irreparably impaired, but because, on the contrary, they’re looking for something to engage their attention in a flood of often mediocre content. And that’s a good thing because our attention is the most powerful tool we have. The fact that we’re not just giving it to any damn thing is a good thing! Marketing companies use the short attention span myth to exhort businesses to spend more and more to money to grab users’ attention which often makes things worse with dumbed-down content and bombarding strategies.

From a deeper existential perspective, one might ask, who watches attention? How do we know that our attention is wandering? Obviously because something within us watches/witnesses attention and inattention. What is that? Are we not identifying with the wrong thing when we feel that we’re drifting when really it’s our attention that’s drifting? If we can observe our attention, then we’re not the attention but attention is just a tool we possess – a very intimate and powerful tool.

I’ll leave you to contemplate these questions this Sunday and hope that it’s a relief to know that you’re not a goldfish! I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic so do leave your comments on this post. I’ll also take it as a confirmatory sign of your very healthy attention span that you made it through this article!

Weekly Digest

Finishing up with our picks from the past week on LWP, in case you missed them:

Professor Subhash Kak’s article, Ganga: The River of Heaven in which he traces the course of the Ganga from its descent from heaven to the rituals and traditions associated with the river.

– Shruti Bakshi’s Yoga Day article, Happy Yoga Day and Yoga for a Happy Day which discusses new scientific evidence that yoga can change our genes and reflects on the idea of yoga as a ‘Hindu’ practice.

– Beloo Mehra’s reflections on art and it’s aesthetic and educative purposes in the article, An Evening of Dance (Reflections on Art)

– An article by Nora von Ingersleben in which she finds a sanctuary of peace atop a hill in Bangkok, a city usually known more for its traffic and noise

– An introduction to Laughter Yoga

– A ginger-lemon detox drink recipe

– The final 4 asanas in our Yoga Day countdown: Ardha MatsyendrasanaGomukhasanaNaukasana and Shavasana . Hatha yoga teacher Ambika Gupta ran us through 10 asanas in our countdown, with scenic postcards from the banks of a Swiss lake.

– Last Sunday’s Newsletter: And Now, Yoga (Yoga Day Special)

As always, I look forward to your comments, feedback, suggestions and article contributions. Do share this email with those you think may be interested so that they can also and join the wiser-living movement!

Wishing you a lovely Sunday wherever in the world you may be.

Warm regards,
Shruti Bakshi
Editor, the LivingWise Project

The Alchemy of Suffering and Freedom

The capacity to think and remember brings with it an acute feeling of separation and impending loss. We suffer both because we want more and are fearful that we will be deprived of what we have. A quiet scream rises inside when we remember that we have seen beauty but don’t know how to hold on to it.

But is suffering the human condition? Is it the basic nature of life, programmed, if you will, into the game of life? And must we, as many experts expound, simply change our attitude towards negative happenings and get on with it? “Think positive”, “Suffering is optional” are catchy phrases but is there a more existential explanation of what suffering is in the human context and is there a way of transforming this poison of life into nectar?

Samudra Manthan

The sea with its ebb and flow, high and low tides, the emptying of all rivers into the one ocean appears to describe our experience of life. The allegory of the Samudra Manthan (1) (churning of the ocean) holds many exquisite truths. It’s almost as if the more the waters of this legend are churned, the more they reveal the mystic secrets (just like the gifts emerging from the ocean in the legend itself). In an earlier article we looked at how the Samudra Manthan helps us understand the spiritual dimension of Ayurveda.

Samudra manthan, churning of the ocean with the devas on the right and asuras on the left. Vishnu’s Kurma (turtle) avatar supports Mount Mandhara at the base

The story illustrates how life is a dynamic interplay between the positive and negative, between light and dark, between good and bad. In the legend, the asuras (demons) and devas (lower gods) together churn the ocean of milk for the many gifts the ocean contains, the most coveted of which is the nectar of immortality. The churning of the ocean symbolises human life out of which emerge experiences that are either positive (gifts going to the devas) or negative (gifts going to the asuras).

The Samudra Manthan is symbolic of the truth that in the experience of life, duality is a given which means that illness, misery, failure and so on are as programmed into the game of life as are health, joy and success. Our suffering is due to these oppositions within us, which we are unable to bridge in any permanent way. At best, one can hope to dance between these oppositions and hope that one doesn’t trip in the process.

The poison of nothingness

The Samudra Manthan story describes not only the dualities of materiality and the spirit but also a deeper existential threat that arises in the form of an existential poison (halaahal). The poison threatens both the devas and the asuras and indeed all creation until Shiva (who is a witness to the churning and represents cosmic awareness) drinks it.

The poison is held by Shiva in his throat, turning it blue, hence his name ‘Nilakantha’ or blue-throated, and it generates tremendous heat in his body. The temple ritual of pouring water and milk over the shiva-linga is symbolic of cooling this heat. The ritual is sacred theatre to connect the worshiper to a deeper experience of the Self.

The poison is the existential dread of nothingness that afflicts existence. If it were to seep into one’s cells, that is the end of life. By holding it within his being, Shiva transforms the fear of nothingness into auspicious salvation. In this paradox lies the exchange of fear for Grace.



In the world but above it

The seven chakras in the human body
The seven chakras in the human body

A yogic interpretation of the symbolism may be that the poison is held in the throat at the vishuddha chakra, the chakra associated with filtering and discrimination, which lies at the intersection of the higher and lower centres of consciousness.

The poison emerging out of the play of life is thus willingly held by the experiencing Self (Shiva) in a way that both allows the lower energy centres to carry on the play of life and the higher consciousness centres to remain unaffected. In other words, the Self allows the play of duality, participating willingly for the sake of experience while at all times remaining untouched. Looked at another way, the only reason we can endure the churning of the ocean, the unceasing change that is life, is because we are the Self (Shiva), a dimension beyond, the unchanging one.

This is the central idea in Indian spiritual traditions that one can realise one’s higher Self while being a willing player in the game of life. The idea is often expressed through the metaphor of a lotus that blooms in a pond of mud while remaining spotlessly clean. It is the call to rise above maya or illusion by recognising the world as a divine play (leela) and being the witness (sakshi) of the play.

This is not the same as adopting a certain attitude or chanting positive affirmations, which though guiding us towards the light still keep us trapped in duality. This is about the realisation of the nature of our existence. It is neither about doing, nor undoing, but just simply being.

(1) For more and related information, see article here.


Read also: the Spiritual Foundations of ayurveda

Social Media in a Spiritual Context

‘Spirituality’ and ‘social media’ are two words that don’t naturally sit well together for most people. In fact they would more likely be used in the same sentence only to point out the inverse relationship between the two in terms of popularity. But I’m here to put forth a very different view. I believe that social media, while it has wreaked havoc on human minds in many ways, also holds the potential to facilitate our spiritual evolution. Here’s why.

Tweeting our way to reform

As of May 2016, India ranked as the country with the second highest number of Twitter users (after the US) at 41 million users (as per Statista). For anyone with a healthy appetite for political discourse, this should come as no surprise as tweets have become almost synonymous with official …

The only way to deal with uncertainty

We humans don’t like uncertainty. In fact, in a way, all our civilisations have been built as an endeavour to reduce uncertainty – from the granaries of ancient times that helped deal with harvest uncertainties, to the modern day cell phone that provides more certainty about people and things you care …

Be original, truly

Reflecting on what got me into exploring spirituality, one important aspect was not being able to take as a given, most ‘conventional wisdom’ doing the rounds. You know the witty poster quotations and the inspirational one-liners or often two-word-ers like ‘love yourself’, ‘be original’, yada, yada. Instead of readily accepting these exhortations, I wanted to know why? And moreover, I was a little annoyed at having to take advice from other people in the sense of, why don’t I know these things myself? This kind of questioning led me into a deeper understanding of human life and purpose.
In this post, I want to discuss one of the flighty aphorisms that many of us have grown up with and which, perhaps as in my case, makes you think of a sports-wear advertisement : ‘be original’. But instead of taking its casual, up-front meaning, I want to explore a more spiritual dimension.

Lessons in trying to save the world

Yesterday, I tried to save the world. Well, just a little bit. Having nurtured a considerable passion for a while about wanting to contribute to a better world, I signed up with great enthusiasm for an event to help with an initiative for the education of underprivileged children. It was …

The most important reminder of all

Shuffling through the ‘to-do’s and ‘may-do’s, Letting some drop off the cluttered lists; Postponing smiles and laughter to the holidays, Squeezing contentment into corners, if it fits.   ‘Why are we here?’ ‘What is the truth?’ We’d love to know, but maybe later. There’s so much to do today (and every …

Commercialisation of spirituality

Ever since the Beatles starting chanting Om and Madonna started doing yoga, eastern spirituality has been quite fashionable and has been becoming even more so in recent years. While it’s no doubt good that people are taking up positive spiritual practices like yoga-asanas, the commercialisation of spirituality is undesirable and …