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

And Now, Yoga Day (Why 21 June ?)

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (read more on this book), considered by yogis as the ultimate yoga handbook (even if only of 195 sutras), opens with the words:

अथ योगानुशासनम् (atha yoganushasanam)

This may be translated as “and now, the discipline of yoga”. Many commentators consider these words to be quite an abrupt start to a discussion on yoga. Some commentators don’t make much of these opening words while some note the word ‘anushasanam’ meaning ‘self-discipline’ which they stress is the foundation of yoga.

As Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev explains, the significance of these words is essentially that yoga can only be approached in earnest when one is ready for it. And one is usually ready for it when one has had their fill of life’s wine of materialism and realised that it hasn’t gotten them the everlasting high they hoped it would. “Now what?” Now, yoga.

It seems increasingly like humanity as a collective whole is reaching this point quite rapidly. That’s not to say that they collectively also realise it or know what to do about it. However the many enlightened beings who foresaw the state of our world in this century (like Sri Aurobindo, Vivekananda and Yogananda Parmahansa to name a few) as well as those who walk in our midst today, all stress the importance to humanity to take up the tools of yoga. Patanjali’s words, being timeless, seem to also directly address the world today.  In an age speeded along at a frenetic pace by technology, it is imperative that we know the stability and peace that yoga can bring to our lives. In times of rapid change, the need to find the eternal becomes more intense. The time has come, now yoga.


Significance of Yoga Day on 21 June

In 2015, thanks to the efforts of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, 21 June was declared as the International Day of Yoga by the United Nations. The resolution set a record for being supported by the highest number of countries at the UN (175 out of 193).

21 June is the summer solstice, when the sun turns southwards in the sky in the northern hemisphere. In Indian culture, the phase of the sun in its ~6 month southward run is called Dakshinayana. This phase is referred to as sadhana pada or the phase when one should focus on sadhana i.e. spiritual practices (the phase of the sun’s northern run is called Uttarayana which is the kaivalaya pada, gnana pada or period associated with Samadhi). Dakshinayana is for purification and receptivity and Uttarayana is for fulfilment and enlightenment.

According to yogic sciences, the summer solstice has a significant impact on the human system. If one were to understand the human body in relation to these two phases of the sun, then the lower 3 chakras (energy centres) of the body (Muladhara, Swadhisthana and Manipura) can be more easily purified during Dakshinayana and the higher 3 chakras (Vishuddha, Ajna and Sahasrara) can be more easily purified during Uttarayana. Hence the significance of sadhana involving the body such as yoga-asanas, during Dakshinayana beginning at the summer solstice.


From gross to subtle

Yoga, in essence, is about aligning with the cosmic. At the gross level, this involves yoga-asanas to align our inner geometries with the cosmic geometries. All spiritual practices aim at leading the individual from the gross to the subtle. The practices themselves too can be seen as evolving from gross to subtle as the sadhak advances on the path. What starts out as yoga-asanas or pranayama, focusing on the body and breath, ultimately leads one to the subtler practice of the real yoga, uniting with the Divine within.

So, I’m not going to shake my head too strongly at the sporty yoga practitioners who seem focused on the bodily and health benefits of yoga. There’s many ways to start and all are welcome because truly, it’s time for yoga.

For sources and more information about Dakshinayana, see articles by Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev here and here.

Read also: 5 Reasons Why Yoga is Better than Gymming


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A Song for the Neuroscientists (Avadhuta Gita)

Weekend Thoughts: A Gita for the Neuroscientists

First it was physics, now it’s neuroscience. The scientific community has always delighted in casting its sceptical eye on the spiritual and mystic dimensions of life. And our ‘rational’, modern age, has readily granted them the position of ‘experts’ with few stopping to consider that title for the other side instead.

Modern neuroscientists have been able to make careers expounding theories that play with the mystical. There’s the science of ‘consciousness hacking’ which purports to use technology to enhance human experience. There’s also the ‘Integrated information theory’ which purports to measure the extent/depth of consciousness in each living thing. Most recently, efforts are starting to be made to achieve immortality through AI. In short, the list is long.

In his latest book, Two Saints, Indian journalist and author Arun Shourie has gone so far as to suggest (based again on the testimony of neuroscience) that the sadhana of the saints Ramakrishna Parmahansa and Sri Ramana Maharshi was marked by sleep disorder and unhealthy effects on the mind and brain. I must declare upfront that I have not read the entire book but the excerpts and book reviews that I have read have confirmed that deeper association with the book would be a colossal waste of time and money. Such comments about sleep deprivation showcase a poetic irony in that saints who are ‘awake’ are accused of not sleeping enough!

To our scrupulous neuroscientists, I propose a certain song (gita) of timeless origin in India – the Song of the Avadhuta or the Avadhuta Gita. Credited to the sage Dattatreya, the Avadhuta Gita is the song of every enlightened soul, including the avadhuts Sri Ramana Maharshi and Ramakrishna Parmahansa whose perception of life transcended the senses. Indeed, the basic fallacy in the scientific approach in assessing spiritual matters is its insistence on objective and measurable experience whereas spirituality belongs to the realm of the subjective.

He does not attain a “many” or a “One” that is separate from himself;
It is not something other, like an object with length and breadth.
It cannot be objectively proven, or compared with anything;
It’s the Lord, the Self, the Eternal, he attains.
(Avadhuta Gita, II: 36*)

The basic problem is that scientists keep turning up to scrutinise the mystical with their measuring sticks, trying to employ their senses and mind to figure out what is beyond the senses and mind. And we watch as they churn out theories and data about Consciousness, which attempts can be likened to someone bumping into furniture in a dark room. “No, it’s not this”, “not that”, “wrong again” sigh the enlightened sages. Neti, neti.

You are the ultimate Reality; have no doubt.
The Self is not something known by the mind;
The Self is the very one who knows!
How, then, could you think to know the Self?
(Avadhuta Gita, I: 42*)

In my view, the neuroscientists would be better off trying to understand the meaning of the following lines to better satisfy their curiosity about the physical and mental “condition” that a mystic experiences. This is the state of the avadhuta who has transcended space and time:

I’ve put an end to both wavering and unwavering;
I don’t even imagine thought.
I’ve put an end to both dreaming and waking;
I neither sleep nor wake.
I’ve put an end to animate and inanimate;
I’m neither moving nor still.
I’m nectarean knowledge, unchanging bliss; I’m everywhere, like space.
(Avadhuta Gita, III: 16*)

The two saints Ramana and Ramakrishna are not physically here anymore but their message is always timelessly here and quite apt for our mind-obsessed friends:

O mind, my friend, what’s the good of so much speaking?
O mind, my friend, all of this has been made quite clear.
I’ve told you what I know to be true;
You’re the ultimate Reality. You’re unbounded, like space.
(Avadhuta Gita, I: 68*)

The Avadhuta Gita has to be felt and experienced, not simply heard. Indeed it is a song without a tune. A song that each one must set to the tune of their own life.

*Dattatreya: Song of The Avadhut translated by Swami Abhayananda
Also see an
earlier article I wrote on similar themes and a recently published post on LWP where the spiritual teacher Mooji (in the lineage of Sri Ramana) explains what the path of self-enquiry is about.

See also: The Face of Grace, Ramana Maharshi 


Important Updates

We will be counting down to Yoga Day on 21 June with an article a day on yoga – some old, some new, ranging from articles on how to begin yoga, to more philosophical aspects. We’ll also feature a selection of 10 yoga-asanas – one a day staring tomorrow to get you in the mood!

Weekly Digest

Finishing up with a weekly round-up from LWP in case you missed it (scroll down to see more details):

Monday Recipe: Red Pesto, a vitamin powerhouse
Tuesday: Researcher Kiran Varanasi’s thoughts on how the computational nature of Sanskrit is directly relevant to science and ecology and can show us the way forward
Wednesday: Nimisha Bowry’s thoughts on the ‘As You Like It Generation’ in the LivLite section
Thursday: Beloo Mehra’s walk through the beauty and divinity of an Indian temple
Friday: Ranjan Bakshi’s review of Nithin Sridhar’s book, Musings on Hinduism
Saturday: An introduction to self-inquiry with a short clip by spiritual master Mooji discussing The Most Important Question
Last Sunday’s Newsletter: “We Won’t Always Have Paris”