January 1st 2021: Can you improve your attention span?

Goldfish: 8 seconds. Elephant: decades. Image c/o Whyte Corporate Affairs

Welcome to the first of my daily snippets aimed at sharing something tailored for every day of the year, just for you. Yes, you. Much of the content will be snippets from books I am enjoying and I will include links for you to grab copies yourselves too, of course.

I hope these newsletters are of interest and you’ll come back regularly and check out the back-catalogue if you’ve missed a few. As with all newsletters, word-of-mouth is a potent and super helpful friend, so if you enjoy what you have read, please feel free to point someone else to it too.

Finally, before today’s snippet, I would just like to welcome any recommendations for books I should check out that might fit the bill. Leave a comment or send me a DM if anything feels right for you – I’ll obviously credit any recommendations!

So, that’s all from me: enjoy today’s snippet and all the very best for 2022. Try and keep your mind on the job in hand; but don’t worry too much if you’re distracted!


OUR WANDERING MINDS tend to make most of us feel guilty.

Jonathan Schooler of the University of California, Santa Barbara has attempted to assess ‘normal’ levels of mind-wandering in the lab by, for example, getting people to read extracts of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace and interrupting them to ask their thoughts at random intervals. Such studies reveal we spend anywhere between 15 and 50 per cent of the time with our head in the clouds.

Such a lack of focus might seem terribly inefficient, but probably isn’t. It’s unproductive in the context of whatever you are doing currently, but it’s potentially productive in the context of whatever it is you’re thinking about. You might be reading a book and thinking about planning a party, and while it’s compromising your ability to read the book, you’re making progress on the party. There is good evidence that a wandering mind is an evolved trait that helps us to think about and plan for the future – something that also fosters a uniquely human creativity.

Measuring perhaps the closest thing – the ability to stay focused on one task, known as selective attention – involves looking at attention shifts on the millisecond scale, such as asking people to state the colour of shapes as they pop up on a screen while ignoring distractions that pop up at the same time. Such experiments show a lot of variation in selective attention. It’s low in kids, perhaps because the developing brain has yet to master control over areas that process incoming sensory information. It then improves until the age of twenty, when it plateaus until middle age, before diminishing once again.

Staying off the booze can improve your attention span – when you consume alcohol, you mind-wander more and notice it less. Technologies that promote thought control could help, too, as could meditation. People who practice mindfulness mind-wander notably less.

Enjoyed this snippet? Check out more in: Eureka!: Mindblowing Science Every Day of the Year from New Scientist

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