You have the attention span of a goldfish!

Devastating insult or statement of fact? According to “the science”, having the attention span of a goldfish would, until recently, have meant you could only manage to focus on something for around eight seconds. That much? is my first thought. My second is, how on earth can they tell with goldfish?

It’s easy with humans. After all, you kind of get the idea—there’s nothing like the affirming glow of watching someone’s eyes glaze over as they zone out listening to your latest rant. You don’t have to be the empath of the century to discern that you’ve lost them. Even if they’re polite and conditioned to look mildly interested, the twitching mouse hand or the occasional furtive but longing glance at their mobile or the look over your shoulder to find someone more interesting speaks volumes.

But fish? Unless I’m missing something, their eyes are perpetually glassy and lacking focus. Maybe some earth-shattering metaphysical thinking is going on as they swim, seemingly purposelessly, from one side of their bowls to another. Perhaps we judge harshly, and they’re living the fish dream. Enjoying the little joy things like that witty sunken treasure chest or shipwreck you thoughtfully placed to enrich their existence. Maybe they, like humans, aspire to smell the roses and rise above the limitations of the daily grind. For goldfish, rather than roses, think the aesthetic and olfactory glory of a bunch of weird sounding aquatic plants—Moneywort, Hornwort, Rotala Rotundifolia, Pygmy Chain Sword, Hygrophilia Polysparma and Cryptocorne Wendttii are among the most popular. They seem more like ingredients the witches in Macbeth might have been familiar with than joy bringing plants. Each to their own. 

In any case, according to Forbes Magazine, in 2015, the internet was awash with shock and horror about claims that the attention span of the average human had plummeted to eight seconds–about the same as that of a goldfish—and that it was getting shorter  There were even suggestions that big sporting events be condensed to accommodate this downward dog of a trend. “Well, bugger me sideways!” scandalised people everywhere exclaimed (when shock saw off good taste and horror provoked strong reactions). “That’s appalling! How have we sunk so low? Can’t we rewind to the Halcyon Days of pre everything smart and get back to being smart ourselves?” 

More recently, this supposition has been pretty roundly debunked. It turns out that we both—humans and goldfish—can do better than the eight-second average that only a few years ago shocked and horrified so many. Phew. That’s all right then. Let’s face it: eight seconds is mind-bogglingly unimpressive. Eight seconds pass faster than you can spell Mississippi. (Remember how we were taught to time stuff absent as kids by saying one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi, four, five, etc, ad infinitum to count time for stuff like games and races where timing mattered and we didn’t have mobile phones with inbuilt timers).

But just because we can do something doesn’t mean we will. Even thoug we are able to focus on one topic beyond eight seconds doesn’t always mean we will. Off-hand, I can think of several examples where my attention span slumps to significantly less than eight seconds. I generally give up well before the eight-second mark when searching streaming services for something new to watch, and pick up my Kindle instead. There’s just so much choice. I want to watch stuff as a leisure activity, not something that feels like so much more work. As you will have read in my previous blog, assembling flat pack furniture is another example where I need the dogged determination of a terrier after a rat that’s gone to ground to push beyond any seconds of focus.

All joking apart, I have the 2015 understanding of a goldfish’s attention span when it comes to stuff I don’t care about and an infinite capacity to focus on the stuff I do. Whatever the extended span of a goldfish is now said to be, it’s not like they use it to read books or put together flat-packed furniture! There’s no one-size-fits-all on attention spans, and stupid scientific research trying to average it out is … er … stupid … in my humble opinion. But it does seem as if attention spans have shortened and continue to shrink.

I can cut people slack and believe we pay attention when we want or need to. Perhaps that’s generous, and I should be more worried about the overall plummet in our device-induced vacuousness. But my worry is declining attention seems to walk hand-in-hand with the infinitely scarier knowledge that in places like the UK, as many as 50% of the population don’t read books. That’s don’t, not necessarily, can’t. FIFTY PER CENT!!!! Most people can read. Reading is still taught at schools. They just choose not to. 

I read this in the Times Newspaper this week and nearly wrote an email to the editor expressing my shock and horror until I realised that would make me one of those grumpy older people always harping on about an infinitely better state back in the day. But I can muster pretty impressive howls of outrage at the loss to humanity when people consign the greatest thinkers of the past to the too-hard basket because they no longer have the inclination or stamina to cope with anything more than a meme, lurid headline or the latest TikTok sensation. Oops, straying into the grumpy olds again.  

In our defense, lack of attention is not entirely our choice. We have a conscious aspect that supports focus and a subconscious one that keeps chucking other things on our periphery into the mix. We’re conditioned to scan for trouble so we can trigger the fight, flight reflexes that linger on from our more primal pasts. Now, it’s more like scanning the horizone for shiny new things to fixate over and take flight from the borning task at hand, but there is at least some justification for our fickleness of attention.

Achieving deep focus is a question of practice. It’s not something that just comes naturally to most of us. It’s a layered and nuanced skill built over time and effort, but we can’t be in that zone every minute of every day. There’s nothing wrong with bursts of limited attention. I went to my town’s annual fair yesterday and sifted around in a drift of people enjoying the day and relishing the enticing wafts of all sorts of yumminess from the food carts. I drifted and sifted without any particular focus, idly scanning the stalls for the shiny thing that would draw me in and get my attention. You can’t always give everything full focus—we need enjoyable and non-challenging downtime like that.

Coming back to the point, if goldfish have been proven to have attention spans longer than eight seconds, the old insult no longer holds true. We need something new and worse. What about substituting the humble gnat? Gnats have an attention span of zero—that’s nil, nada, zip, diddly squat—because gnats have no memory. Again, I wonder how on earth THEY know this, but THEY likely do, so I’ll take THEIR word for it. Whatever. Next time you’re tempted to accuse someone of having the attention span of a goldfish, think again. If you want a genuinely desiccating insult, it doesn’t get much better than comparing them to a gant. It’s a winner on two counts. Much worse than a goldfish and, unless you’re a serious gnatofile or gnatologist, they’re also ugly little suckers!

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