It’s exasperating, and usually costly, when clients don’t follow our instructions about testifying. Why don’t they just do what we tell them? One reason, and it’s a big one, is they didn’t learn what we told them – either they didn’t hear our instructions or they didn’t understand or remember them. There are many barriers to learning. One of them is that we don’t listen as well as we used to because our brains may be changing.
We live in a fast-paced, Web-centric, App-driven, Twitter-conscious world and it’s made us impatient readers and listeners. Ted Selker of MIT has studied the effect of web surfing on attention spans. He found that heavy Web users (digital addicts) have about a nine second attention span – the same as a goldfish. If your witness is a 27 year old software engineer, think in goldfish time.
Few people use the Web to such an extreme, but average use, if you include apps and social media, is now approaching five hours a day (the Global Web Index). This constant digital exposure is causing some neuroscientists to hypothesize that our brains are activating neural circuits to help process the enormous amount of online information. We now skim information because there are so many choices.
We “slow read” a paper edition of the New York Times or Wall Street Journal, but we skim and scan the Web because of all the hyperlinks, YouTube videos, RSS feeds, pop-up weather forecasts, Facebook messages, breathless news breaks and the like. We walk through the New York Times. We sprint through the Web.
I can no longer read a five hundred page book with the same level of interest and patience that I did ten years ago unless it’s a spell-binder. Some may gently point to aging as a factor, and there may be some of that, but I don’t believe it explains most of my impatience. I think the Web is affecting my brain and making me an impatient reader and a listener.
In his insightful article in The Atlantic (“Is Google Making Us Stupid?”) Nicholas Carr wrote:
“My mind isn’t going – so far as I can tell – but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy … Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do… The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle. I think I know what’s going on. For more than a decade now I’ve been spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing…”
Carr quotes Dr. Bruce Friedman from the University of Michigan Medical School:
“I can’t read ‘War and Peace’ anymore. I’ve lost the ability to do that. Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it.”
Since I’m into my seventh paragraph, I better wrap this up. Is there anything new here? After all, we have known for a long time that audiences are impatient listeners. Trial lawyers try to keep their opening statements to twenty or thirty minutes. TED talks limit speakers to eighteen minutes. Dr. John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist and author of Brain Rules, writes that a college student’s attention starts to decline after ten minutes of a lecture.
“What happens at the 10 minute mark to cause such trouble? Nobody knows. The brain seems to be making choices according to some timing pattern, undoubtedly influenced by both culture and gene” [Brain Rules, 2008].
It’s fair to conclude that attention spans are fragmenting but that’s not particularly newsworthy. What is interesting and unsettling is the idea that the Web may be changing my brain, that McLuhan was right that the “medium is the message” and that the omnipresent, ever stimulating Web may actually be reshaping my thought and redirecting my choices.