Do vets have the attention span of a gnat or an elephant?

01 June 2014, at 1:00am

Chris Whipp raises the issue of attention spans apparently getting shorter and discusses why the management of our spans may be the next major business opportunity to be exploited

THE title of this article is, of course, misleading but it raises an issue that is of paramount importance in our busy 24/7 world.

In this, the first of a two part article, we will look at why attention span and its management may be the next major business opportunity there to be exploited. Next month we will look at how to “Talk to the elephant”, “Meet the monkey halfway” or whatever other euphemism you might prefer for working with attention.

It is generally accepted in our internet- driven world that our attention spans are getting shorter, typified by the fact that most surfers on the web spend less than one minute on a website before moving on or, if you are creating an online video, then three minutes is often far too long and if you haven’t got your message over in the first 30 seconds then you have probably lost a lot of your audience. Look at your own internet behaviour, does this ring any bells?

Intelligent individuals 

We all tell ourselves that we are fair, intelligent, reasoning individuals making decisions in a consistent and rational way through logical thought. The truth is frequently quite different.

The seat of conscious thought is the pre-frontal cortex (PFC) a layer of cells barely 5mm thick that covers part of the front aspect of the brain. In evolutionary terms it is very young and has a surprisingly limited functional capacity, contrary to what you might think: 

  • we can only think consciously about one thing at a time;
  • we can only hold maybe three ideas in our head at any one time;
  • proportionately, it has huge energy requirements and can easily become depleted;
  • limited capacity which is easily overwhelmed by excessive inputs;
  • slow by comparison to other areas of the brain. 

All of these make it unsuited to the information overload to which we currently subject ourselves which means the semi and automated parts of the brain become used more and more and conscious attention is lost.

Whilst I would not be as pessimistic, renowned Australian neuroscientist David Rock suggests that the average person now gets barely two hours of high-quality creative thought per week.

Vets are often highly intelligent, driven individuals heavily invested in their cognitive and intellectual skills and when overload gets out of control significant well-being issues arise with which we are often ill-equipped to deal.

Whirlpool of information 

Success in business is usually about doing things differently or better than the competition and as so many of us are sucked inexorably into the whirlpool of information overload, tomorrow’s successes will be those who choose, and work at, not to be sucked in.

The problem, of course, is that this is counterintuitive because you need to increase the use of the PFC at just the time you think you don’t have the time to do so.

For those brave enough to invest their time and effort, the good news is that the necessary skills are learnable, offering improved wellness and a business edge.

Attention span is the amount of concentrated time that can be spent on a task without being distracted. It is frequently split into “transient attention” and “selected sustained attention”. 

The former is a short-term response to a stimulus that attracts/distracts attention: this may last something in the region of eight seconds.

Selected sustained attention is the attention we choose to apply to a task.

It is impossible to state a specific time because this varies with person, age, nutrition, motivation and task; 40 minutes is a commonly quoted figure but Hobbit fans might argue that they can maintain their attention for an 111⁄2 hour movie marathon!

Applying attention 

In reality, it is about applying attention, resting and renewing attention as defined by the task/motivation.

The better you can focus on the task and, to some degree the longer you can maintain that focus, the better.

That having been said, the common behaviour of clinging to a task to the point of completion is often bad in that the PFC is given little opportunity to rest and refresh and quality can suffer.

Whilst the internet can be a boon, it can also be the bringer of large quantities of questionable data.

When researching attention span for this article, I was completely unable to find any data on the attention span of an elephant (memory span is obviously something completely different).

I was, however, directed to multiple sources that confidently assured me that the attention span of a gnat was 0.210005 seconds but left me wondering who completed this Herculean task and where is the evidence?

So, you might well ask, “What’s the relevance of the elephant and the monkey?”

In Jonathan Haidt’s book The Happiness Hypothesis he likens the elephant to the semi and automatic brain which is influenced by gut feelings, intuition, emotions and unconscious drives. Influenced by our genes, our early upbringing, our education and our experience, the elephant is both huge and strong and potentially out of control for more of the time that we might wish to admit.

By contrast, the rider reflects the conscious brain with its sense of direction, controlled thought and rationality, frequently oblivious to the size and power of the beast that we seek to control.

In Ajahn Sumedo’s book Meeting the Monkey Halfway, the analogy is continued but predates the internet by some 2,500 years.

In many ancient Asian wisdom teachings, the monkey is a symbol for a restless mind that “...bounces capriciously from one activity to another – restless, wayward and unsettled” (sound familiar?).

Meeting the monkey is about making a dynamic effort to engage with the mind and “half way” recognises that it is about balance and not control.

Next month, we will look how we can train and develop the attention and tricks to improve and keep attention. If you would like to know more about this subject, e-mail