Goldfish in aquatic plants

Who has the greater attention span: humans or goldfish?

Since 2015, there’s been a lot about human attention spans dwindling to less than that of goldfish. If you’ve not already been distracted by something else, find out if it’s true… 

A report from Microsoft in 2015 – widely referenced in respected media, such as TIME magazine, the Guardian, and USA Today – apparently found that the attention span had shrunk down to a meagre eight seconds. Many mockingly compared this number to the nine-second attention span of the common goldfish*.  

Surely that’s not even long enough for a cat video? 

Fingers were pointed at the careless overconsumption of all things digital, the desire for instant gratification was blamed… someone even blamed the hapless emoji for the loss of wit and style.   

Then, in 2017, a BBC article Busting the attention span myth found two key errors in the original finding: 

  • The Microsoft Consumer Insights team did not study human attention spans (they surveyed 2,000 Canadians and studied the brain activity of 112 people as they carried out various tasks) 
  • The research institute cited for the ‘8 second’ statistic – Statistic Brain – has quoted a 2008 study by Weinreich et al., but this statistic does not seem to actually appear in the study! 
  • Any attempts to contact Statistic Brain fell short 

It turns out that one person’s attention span can have a massive variation across activities. The length of time we can concentrate on a task depends on a whole set of factors, like purpose, experience, external environment, and, most importantly: what we are actually doing. 

If you’ve ever binge-watched a Netflix series, you’ll know that eight seconds is an absurdly short amount of time for measuring attention (after all, who hasn’t spent eight hours watching two seasons of a gripping true crime?) 

((It’s also worth mentioning that this fact also reflects what we know about adult learning principles, one of which suggests that adults are most engaged when learning about things that have relevance to them.)) 

watercolor illustration of goldfish

*Oh, and as it turns out, goldfish don’t have short attention spans or memories either. 

Decades of scientific research has studied goldfish learning and memory. One researcher’s findings suggest that Goldfish have a memory of at least six months, if not more. Indeed, scientists have long worked alongside fish to study the process of learning and memory formation and it’s because they have a memory and because they learn! 

We even came across a story where pet fish apparently spent seven hours carrying out activities on their owner’s Nintendo Switch account: pet fish playing Nintendo Switch run up bill on owner’s credit card. 

Our collective understanding of memory is constantly evolving thanks to neuroscience – (and fish, apparently!)  

Thanks to neuroscience, we now know that repetition, relevance, context, and practice all play a part in strengthening the neural pathways that help us remember. We know that problem-solving, storytelling, and techniques such as gamification, all make for more engaging (and attention holding) learning. 

We also know that powerful learning takes longer than eight or nine seconds, so let’s retire than myth about attention spans once and for all – for us and the goldfish!  

A post by Nikki Ashley, Instructional Designer at SiyonaTech

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