How Does a Short Attention Span Affect Us in Work and in Life?

November 30, 2018

Short attention span

AMA talked with Charlie Harary, the author of Unlocking Greatness: The Unexpected Journey from the Life You Have to the Life You Want (Rodale Books, 2018), about the topic of brain plasticity and the potential impact of a short attention span. Harary believes that a failure to focus can keep us from gaining wisdom. Here’s an excerpt of his interview with AMA:

AMA: Nicholas Carr wrote a book called The Shallows, which was based upon an article he had originally written for The Atlantic called “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Some of the things in this article dealt with the shrinking human attention span, how things like our smartphones and the Internet…are affecting things like—in the book you talk about it a little bit—but it’s this issue of brain plasticity. The brain can be molded. It can be shaped. It can be expanded in a certain sense. What are your thoughts today as it relates to brain plasticity and specifically the apparent shrinking of the human attention span?

Charlie Harary: I think it’s one of the greatest problems we’re facing…. Whenever I teach students, I tell them, “Your chance of being successful has gone up exponentially because all you’ve got to do now is actually try to pay attention for more than five minutes.”

See, the way the brain works is, every time you have a thought, the brain creates a neurological connection. Right? So thoughts actually create plasticity. The brain is [plastic]. It’s flexible. It’s malleable. Thought actually creates synapses that actually create plasticity. Your brain is actually changing….

Every time you have thoughts, if those thoughts are focused and they’re consistent, they’re building strong neuro connections. That’s how people get better at their jobs after years of doing them.…

So the game of life, and the game of wisdom and knowledge, is what connections are being made in your brain? The habits, the way we feel about things, all of our day-to-day activities really are the reactiveness of our brain plasticity to the world in front of us.

And when you want to change, the best way to change is to target things specifically and increase your thoughts in one area so that you create the right new neuro connections in that specific area. The way to do that is focus.

When you focus on something long enough, what you’re doing is you’re allowing your brain to create the right plastic connections so that you get knowledge that’s actually lasting. If you read something for more than a minute, your brain has more and more time to delve into something and to see it’s nuanced, and then to learn the wisdom. If everything you have in life is surface, you don’t ever have the chance to develop anything deeper than surface.

So we live in a world today where the world figured out…all I’ve got to do is send you things that you want that’s going to stimulate you and going to shock you enough times, and I’ll guarantee you’ll pay attention to me, which is why headlines aren’t even headlines anymore. Now there’s algorithms that say, You’re on this side of this political fence? I’m going to feed you headlines that you want to hear, and I’m going to make it more and more shocking, because here’s what’s going to happen: Over the course of your life, you’re going to condition yourself to not be able to think of something for more than a few minutes. So your brain cannot create strong neurological connections in depth.

If you look at people that are wise, what they have is not necessarily they’re born with a certain amount of natural knowledge. That’s true. [But] they have depth…. And the value of depth—depth in relationships, in marriage, in children, in work, in anything, in spirituality and philosophy—someone with depth, their minds are different. They see things that no one else sees. The short attention span today is blocking us from depth, and that blocks us from wisdom.

Listen to AMA’s podcast with Charlie Harary.


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American Management Association is a world leader in professional development, advancing the skills of individuals to drive business success. AMA’s approach to improving performance combines experiential learning—“learning through doing”—with opportunities for ongoing professional growth at every step of one’s career journey. AMA supports the goals of individuals and organizations through a complete range of products and services, including seminars, Webcasts and podcasts, conferences, corporate and government solutions, business books and research.

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