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Neuromyths abound and the greatest neuromyth of all time has to be the idea we only use 10% of our brain. As all whole-brain users know, it’s complete tosh but, nevertheless, as with other skyhooks of fanciful thinking, it persists in common neuromyth lore. Perhaps we should just blame the release of films as “Lucy” for this.

Then, of course, you may have heard the one about how excessive use of technology reduces intelligence by between 10-15 IQ points, equivalent to smoking a joint of marijuana. A study commissioned by Hewlett-Packard and led by psychologist Dr Glen Wilson from the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London found that multitasking led to an increased impairment in the ability to focus on a task at hand. It was a review rather than a study and there was no mention of marijuana or IQ levels, that apparently got added in by others using some artistic license. Poor Dr W fed up with being misrepresented released this memo hoping to set the record straight.

Which leads me to the current neuromyth that’s been bobbing around dangerously since 2015. Having seen and heard it perpetuated twice in one week, this was enough to stimulate a blog rant, drum roll, please…

Research sponsored by Microsoft Corp has discovered that the average human attention span has dropped from 12 seconds to 8 seconds, shorter than the attention span of a goldfish, which is 9 seconds.


Could this be true? Surely anything with the name Microsoft in it has to be credible?

Or does it?

We have worked ourselves up into a lather of soapy fish suds with this latest neuromyth that does all goldfish and ourselves a great disservice.

It’s a misinterpretation of the science and because it is a lovely headline (and attention) grabber, we’ve fallen foul of failing to address the underlying problem, which is the fact it’s getting harder to maintain our attention when overly distracted by email and our phones.

In our state of constant partial attention, our lack of critical thinking leads us to fail to check in on the validity of what is purported to be the truth. We risk trivialising genuine concerns about what is being experienced in the workplace and beyond.

What Microsoft’s research looked at

Here is the link to the actual research paper. You may notice a distinct lack of reference to goldfish or any other fish for that matter. Fish-heads take note, likening the attention span of humans and comparing it (incorrectly) to fish serves no useful purpose other than to distort reality and spread untruths.

What the study did examine was browsing behaviour on the Internet as published on this Statistics table.

Sadly as you will see, the real information in the lower half of the table is superseded by the nonsensical stuff at the top.

Putting the attention span record straight

While some of you may be thinking you thought the attention span of a goldfish was only three seconds you may be interested to know that fish behavioural scientists believe that fish are actually quite good at remembering information.

Ichthyologist (this is a person who studies fish biology) Dr Gee and others published a paper that revealed goldfish have a memory span of at least three months!

They found that goldfish can be trained to distinguish different shapes, colours and sounds and Gee was able to train goldfish to press a lever to gain a food reward.

“Nemo, fetch!”

Then there was the ingenious school experiment undertaken by 15-year-old Rory Stokes who as a student at the Australian School of Science and Mathematics in Adelaide in 2008 also decided to put the theory of goldfish attention spans to the test.

He placed a piece of red Lego in a tank of goldfish and sprinkled the goldfish food adjacent to it every day for three weeks. While he noted that the fish were initially wary, they quickly learnt this was the tank canteen and appeared to anticipate the food arriving at that location. After removing the Lego for a week and then replacing it, Rory was able to demonstrate the fish remembered the association of the red brick and food.

You might also enjoy the investigation carried out by Amy who has previous work experience of working in a pet store. She has clearly seen a lot of goldfish behaviour in her time.

Then, of course, Myth Busters Jamie and Adam got into the act as well. You can watch their efforts here.

What this is really about

What we worry about is our ability to pay attention.

We live in a new world where our modern technology designed to help and distract can make it difficult to stay on track and focus on a task at any given moment.

This can be frustrating and can make us feel as if we’re losing our ability to pay attention.

However, what we now understand from the brain science is that the brain is highly adaptive. Yes, things appear to be moving very fast and changes are occurring almost daily. But we can use our plastic and adaptable brains and reclaim our ability to stay focused, by choosing to adopt those workplace practices and thinking patterns that enable us to use our attention wisely.

Which is why the art of critical thinking in a society that elevates superficiality, has never been more important. Thinking well, focusing on what matters and managing our distractions is something we can all do using the power of conscious choice.

What impact have these neuromyths had on your thinking?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, keynote speaker and best-selling author. You can now pre-order her new book ‘The Natural Advantage’ due for publication in October 2024.

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