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Why Goldfish Have a Longer Attention Span than We Do

We live in a world of constant, unpredictable, intermittent inattention. We are bludgeoned and bombarded with a tsunami of digital information; our brains cannot process the glut of data. And sometimes of lack of attention can cause us harm.

In a somewhat controversial study, researchers found that a goldfish has an attention span of 9 seconds, but we humans have an attention span of 8 seconds.

The typical knowledge worker is expected to juggle hundreds of emails and posts and messages each day (just like you are doing right now), and we are interrupted about every 45 seconds by some digital dragon (the ding of an iPhone, a beep of a button, an incoming barrage of emails, a Zoom reminder, a timer).

Okay, we all get it, but the consequences can be profoundly disruptive to our spiritual, psychological, and physical health.

Of course, I have examples:

Tragedy in Slow Motion

My wife and I were leaving with our dinner mates, after a lovely dinner in a quiet corner of an upscale restaurant. Ahead of us we heard a sickening thud like a pumpkin being dropped from a second story window. A couple had been leaving the restaurant, and they were engaged in a spirited conversation when one woman who was not paying attention slammed into a clear glass door.

The tragedy unfolded in slow motion. She bounced off the glass, grabbed her forehead, and started to slump to the floor. Her companion supported her, lovingly had her sit on the floor, and the wait staff sprang into action bringing ice and water. There was no bleeding, the patient was always alert and was more embarrassed than physically injured. She had not been paying attention.

"I never saw it coming."

Or this one: While walking our dogs early one bitter dawn, in the distance I spotted a familiar figure walking his dog. As we got closer, it was obvious that he had a bulky bandage around his head much like a scene from a war movie or zombie apocalypse.

He explained, “I was almost killed in the parking ramp.” I thought he must have been robbed and bludgeoned or had a car accident. But no. He was with a business associate, and neither was really paying much attention to their environment as they walked together out of the ramp to the street level.

My neighbor walked through the opening where cars usually drive and he was struck in the head by the guillotine jaw that opens and closes to permit cars into and out of the ramp.

“I never saw it coming,” he told me.

Curb Your Attention

One more: I recently had one of those rare face-to-face meetings with a coworker (as many of us are now transitioning even part-time back to the office from working remotely during COVID). She was wearing a rigid gray boot that encased her foot and ankle just to below the knee. She was obviously uncomfortable.

She then explained with some embarrassment that she had been visiting an iconic Italian city and was engaged with discussing with the guide some aspects of the local architecture. You know the routine, the guide was walking backward addressing a group of tourists, my colleague was not paying attention, and she abruptly stepped off a curb and what she then heard was a snap much like a tree branch.

The snap was not a tree, but her ankle.

Multiple surgeries, rehab and balance training were recommended. And a painful end to a lovely vacation. Again, she was not paying attention.

The Lessons

The lessons for each of us do not reflect quantum physics or brain surgery so here goes.

  • Slow down, be vigilant, be aware. What can go wrong? You can step off a curb or be chopped in the head by a parking-ramp arm. Or walk into a wall.

  • Be engaged with your environment. Carrying heavy packages on an icy sidewalk is not going to turn out well. Leaning from a poorly positioned ladder to change a lightbulb in the ceiling is a bad idea.

  • Balance, physical strength, and flexibility are not exclusively the tools of the athlete but are tools that we need to live a safe life, free from hazards.

  • Life is complex, life moves at a blistering pace and as Andy Grove, the tech savant, once said, “Only the paranoid survive.”

  • Wear a mask. COVID is still here. The virus presents a peril like a glass wall or a curb.

Watch your step.

The attention span of a goldfish is 9 seconds. The attention span of humans is 8 seconds. Image from Unsplash.

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