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Is the pandemic shortening our attention spans?

Pandemic Attention Span
Posted at 9:10 AM, Feb 11, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-11 11:10:59-05

CHICAGO — If we’ve learned anything these last two years, it’s that the pandemic has given us more time to worry, doom scroll, and overload our minds with information. Experts say our minds are getting overstimulated and that can affect our ability to concentrate and hold attention.

If you have recently had trouble getting through a movie without getting distracted, you’re not alone.

A potential side effect that might be emerging is a seemingly diminished ability to concentrate for very long.

“Attention is finite. You can't pay attention to everything that you want to,” said Joyce Tam, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Rush University Medical Center. “In fact, our brain has a function to actually monitor what we pay attention to or what's worth paying attention to.”

There’s no hard data on what effect the COVID pandemic has had on our attention spans, but experts agree that mental overload and fatigue have taken a toll.

“When you're spent, when your tank is empty your mind can't focus, and it's just extremely hard to put your attention towards anything when you're fatigued,” said Dr. Charles Hebert an associate professor of internal medicine, psychiatry, and behavioral sciences at Rush.

Experts are studying the lingering post-COVID neurological impacts like brain fog.

“Many of the people that I see who have contracted COVID may suffer from what is actually called delirium or encephalopathy, which is the disturbance of attention,” said Hebert.

But less is known about the collective effect it’s had on our attention spans.

“I'm not sure that, that our actual attention span has changed that much per se, but certainly the way we process information in the way that we give out information has changed over time,” said Tam.

If how we entertain ourselves is any indicator, many have been looking for shorter forms of entertainment like YouTube clips and TikTok videos.

But people have also gotten used to binging, pausing and stopping entertainment, and only recently, have started going back to theaters where they are forced to focus on the big screen without interruption.

“When you're able to create an environment that allows you to focus better, you're going to be able to engage on a task much better,” said Tam.

Experts say there are things you can do if you find your ability to concentrate and focus your attention is waning.

Use therapeutic techniques such as mindfulness and grounding. Acknowledge your distractions to bring yourself back into the moment. Find an environment that's productive for you and prioritize your tasks.

“Being able to set priorities in a way that's active, it's actually very important. So, you have to be realistic, and you have to be able to prioritize your time in a way that benefits you,” said Tam.

Even before the pandemic, there was debate over whether our attention spans were shrinking or not. For a lot of people, it may feel like they are, but experts say reducing your information overload and allowing yourself some mental space could help either way.