Have you seen the buzz about neuroplasticity? This relatively new discovery that our brain has the ability to create new neural networks and new connections? This incredible finding also put an end to the idea that old dogs can't learn new tricks. Turns out the old dogs just get stuck in habit or routine and don't exert enough energy or desire to make a change. I can't blame our cuddly companions as they age, but we are starting to see a shift in our population, young and old, with how their brain works.
Now for an experiment. There are 92 words you had to read. Which on average takes a human being about 18 seconds. Have you already let your mind wander? Have you scrolled through the blog to see how many pages you might have to endure? Are you checking in with your brain to see if your connection to the topic, or to me, is strong enough for you to press on and keep reading? Have I intrigued you enough or challenged you enough with the title? Did you see the word dog and have a dopamine spike that aided in your continued attention? Is this worth your attention span? A study done by Microsoft in 2015 found that the attention span of humans now lasts about 8 seconds. So if you've made it this far, I really appreciate your constant renewed focus and attention.
Now this study left a lot of unanswered questions and it's still up for debate scientifically on if our attention spans are really getting destroyed by this quick fix social media dopamine hitting system. But what we do know is that the brain is changing. Neuroplasticity is an absolutely incredible part of our adaptive human brains, but that doesn't mean it will always work in our best interests. Not only can we become addicted to the dopamine hit of new likes, followers, and the constant scroll of new information, but we also see changes in the regions of our brains dealing with attention spans. This is predominantly the great and powerful frontal lobe of the brain.
Before we enter the frontal lobe, I want to clear up dopamine a bit. People sometimes just think of this as a feel good chemical, but don't fully understand what it is or how it works. In basic terms this chemical helps to allow the nerves to transmit signals to each other. Dopamine is a key and a receptor on a new nerve is a lock. It is a chemical that binds to a receptor site on a nerve to stimulate (communicate) with that nerve. It has a huge role in humans feeling pleasure and our ability to think and to plan. New research suggests that our dopamine works more at an anticipatory level. Which means we have the surge of dopamine that gives us pleasure when we are anticipating something pleasurable. The gambler feels good right before pulling the lever, The sports car owner gets more excited about buying the car than owning the car, and the social media junkie feels the surge as they scroll on to the next post. We are constantly vying for the next dopamine hit (or release). As we pour more and more dopamine onto it's receptors, we start getting desensitized to it's pleasurable effects. These hits are easier to come by than ever before.
The frontal lobe is the last major evolution of the brain and is what makes us humans arguably who we are. This is our personality, our organization, our attention and our planning region amongst other things. A major part of the attention control is a region of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. Now bear with me for a paragraph of science and we will really test that attention span. The prefrontal cortex plays a central role in cognitive control functions. Dopamine in the PFC modulates cognitive control, thereby influencing attention, impulse inhibition, prospective memory, and cognitive flexibility. Disorders associated with the PFC are ADHD, Schizophrenia, PTSD, and many others where our attention can play a role. I could also get into how ADHD and attention disorders are on a dramatically increasing trajectory but that gets into the argument of correlation and causation as well as diagnostic tools etc. And I would rather leave that to the reader to think and research about. Interestingly, the PFC is also the part of the brain that develops last in human beings. It starts it's wiring and firing as the brain develops, but does not end it's development until we turn ~25. Scientists used to believe that was it for us, that our brain was then set in stone and we wouldn't be able to “learn” new tricks. It's a good thing we've learned better.
Let's switch gears. Exhausted? Feeling a bit tired? If you're not a neuroscientist or an avid human body junkie like me, you might have learned something new. This might lead you to focusing on this new information trying to associate this with other things you have learned in life. That is the process of committing new information to memory (vaguely speaking) and it takes a lot of energy for the brain to do it's work. In the average resting state the brain consumes about 20% of all the energy your body is using. It consumes even more when you're focused and attentive. Even chess players are burning more energy in a day of playing chess than you are when you go for an hour run. Why bring up energy consumption? Because our brains also hate exercise, and will follow the path of least resistance to function on the daily. That's one of the reasons why we feel a strong urge to quit while we are learning a new and complicated skill. That is also why we find it extremely hard to break from our daily routine and add something new like exercise, reading or getting a good night's sleep. Once we have learned that skill (or routine) our brains have built new networks and we don't need to use as much energy to perform that skill. Think about learning a new language. Starting the process is unbelievably hard and daunting and most people give up fairly quickly. But once that skill is learned and those networks are in place, it is much easier to pick up new words, and talk to people in that language without drumming up the energy to do so.
Social media, advertising, news headlines, and our insatiable desire for the quick and easy fix of dopamine may not necessarily be “destroying” our attention spans, but it certainly is changing our brains. If you've made it this far, you are either very persistent, or are one of the few who still have relatively active neural networks in the prefrontal cortex associated with attention span. You may even still have a decent effect from a dopamine hit. If you got here on your persistence, then kudos! And you have already taken a step for neuroplasticity to start building back up what may have been lost. Reading and paying attention to long form media, instead of constant short hits will change your brain, even if it's like exercise and hurts a bit at first. In future blogs I may go into more depth on how this could be affecting us in other aspects of our bodies, mental health, and overall wellness, and may even go into more depth on this topic alone as I have only brushed the surface, but I don't want to make this too long and I want to make sure it's not just my mom reading and providing feedback (love you mom). If you have questions or would like to see more blogs like this please let me know :) Thanks for giving me your time and your attention span!