From Deep to Hyper Attention, and Back
by David van der Leer and Sarah Williams, March 30, 2020
You must have heard it by now: goldfish have bigger attention spans than the average human being these days. Since the beginning of the century, our attention span has dropped from 12 to 8 seconds, and a goldfish supposedly swims around gently with 9 seconds at its disposal. The fact that this anecdote is not quite accurate almost doesn’t matter; that it has gotten picked up all over the internet means that we are becoming increasingly aware that something is changing in our brains and behaviors, and it is clearly making us nervous.
While adapting to the new and, hopefully, temporary conditions of sheltering in place around the world as a result of COVID-19, shifts in your personal attention habits have likely become much more apparent to you. We combine a near muscle memory instinct of checking, refreshing, and rechecking the news and social feeds while we are trying to stay sane, keep our families and friends up to date, and go on with work and life as normally as possible. In the past decades, we have developed into able multi-taskers, and, with this virus forcing us to do this largely in one place for weeks—perhaps months—many of us are becoming much more aware of this than usual, and, perhaps in some cases, it makes us slightly uncomfortable. Yes, we want to read that book, make that puzzle, or simply watch our rice cook, but can we still focus?
Evidence actually indicates that the ways in which we pay attention, rather than the overall attention span, has changed.
In the last months, DVDL DD collaborated on a client-based research project with data and visualization scientist Sarah Williams—who leads MIT’s Civic Design Data Lab—to figure out how shifting attention spans require different visitor experiences at museums and other cultural institutions, and we are happy to report that, despite the recent claims that the average human attention span has shortened, evidence actually indicates that the ways in which we pay attention, rather than the overall attention span, has changed.
There is a rapid shift from the centuries-old tradition of celebrating “deep attention,” in which a person focuses on a single task or information stream for a sustained period of time, to us recently being enticed into “hyper attention,” in which a person switches focus rapidly among different tasks or information streams (1). This shift is obviously most evident among younger people, but older generations now also report feeling constantly urged to rapidly switch focus between different tasks and incessantly seeking high levels of stimulation. It is no surprise that this shift is closely related to the invention of the internet, smart phones, and social media.
SEW Report, Deep vs Hyper Attention
It is important to note that one mode of attention is not necessarily better than the other, and, luckily, despite many of us having difficulty focusing for sustained periods these days, we don’t have to rule out deep attention fully (yet)—nor should we simply discredit hyper attention as irrelevant or hurried. They are both here to stay, although, in what relationship, it is difficult to predict. The shift in attention span possibilities does mean that we need to address some of the most fundamental aspects of our society differently.
For instance, the young, especially, have a low tolerance for boredom and get impatient when focusing for prolonged periods on a non-interactive subject. This means that education cannot just mean a teacher in front of a class for eight hours a day anymore. In order to better tailor traditional approaches to education to a more hyper attentive style of learning, educators are now experimenting with fresh classroom models, including “backchanneling” and “Google jockeying,” to integrate real-time student interaction during a presentation or lecture (2,3).
Gallery, image by Karen Axelrad via flickr
Perhaps one of the biggest, and most obvious, findings of our study is that, when content is abundant, attention is scarce. For museums, this means they will need to create more conscious multi-faceted experiences that provide opportunities to engage both hyper attention on one side and deep attention on the other. This could apply to particular exhibitions or public programs, but should certainly also apply to the overall visitor experience from the building, to the content, to the hospitality aspects of the visit.
With society and technology evolving precipitously, how we pay attention—and to what—will require much more flexibility and responsiveness than cultural institutions, and especially museums, have previously allowed for in their planning.
Museum researcher Volker Kirchberg describes three classes of visitor experience in museums ranging from contemplative, to social, to enthusing. (4) It is interesting to see what happens when one overlays these concepts of deep and hyper attention onto his ideas. The contemplative experience naturally aligns with deep attention, since the contemplative visitor seeks to connect intensely, to reflect, and to gain a deeper understanding of the works exhibited. In the social experience, the visitor seeks to interact with others (whether that is friends, family, or others in the museum), and, interestingly, this can take place either in a state of deep or hyper attention depending on who the visitor is looking to engage. And, lastly, the enthusing visitor aligns strongly with hyper attention, since the enthused visitor prefers to interact just with select elements of an exhibit—moving around the museum spaces quickly, while not engaging at length with any work or experience.
SEW Research, Attention & Three Classes of Museum Experience
Providing museum visitors the ability to engage in both deep and hyper attention, depending on the type of visit they desire (social, contemplative, or enthusing) will not only help avoid information overload and boredom, it will also allow museums to connect with wider audiences (4,5, 6). But it is very important, if not apparent already, that museums realize that this new balance of the hyper and deep attention spans will not be static. With society and technology evolving precipitously, how we pay attention—and to what—will require much more flexibility and responsiveness than cultural institutions, and especially museums, have previously allowed for in their planning.
This is all to say, if COVID-19 has started freaking you out about your capacity to focus, rest assured: your deep attention is still partly there, and you should not discredit the joys a hyper attentive mind can bring. And….once we can start planning for a new future—when this is all over—let’s see if we can develop institutional models that embrace both the deep and the hyper.
We have a large presentation on the impact of deep and hyper attention and potential solutions for institutions and would be happy to present its findings to you over videoconference and, perhaps one day, again in person.
1. Katherine Hayles, “Hyper and Deep Attention: The Generational Divide in Cognitive Modes,” Profession 2007.1 (2007): 187–199, doi.org/10.1632/prof.2007.2007.1.187
2. Hall & Fisher, “Experiments in Backchannel: Collaborative Presentations Using Social Software, Google Jockeys, and Immersive Environments,” CHI2006 Conference Proceedings, 2006.
3. E. Pence, E. Greene, and H.E. Pence, “Using a Google Jockey To Enhance Classroom Discussion. Journal of Chemical Education,” [AQ: In what publication was this one?] 87(3), (2010): 254–255, https://doi.org/10.1021/ed800105f
4. Kirchberg and Trondle, “The Museum Experience: Mapping the Experience of Fine Art,” Curator: The Museum Journal (2015) [AQ: pages?].
5. Martin, “Inquiry: Attention Seekers,” Apollo Magazine, December 8, 2014.
6. Everett & Barrett, “Benefits Visitors Derive from Sustained Engagement with a Single Museum,” Curator: The Museum Journal (2011).
“exhibition” Image: Michael R. Shaughnessy, creativecommons.org
Sarah Williams is an Associate Professor of Technology and Urban Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where she is also Director of the Civic Data Design Lab and the Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism. Williams’ combines her training in computation and design to create communication strategies that expose urban policy issues to broad audiences and create civic change. She calls the process Data Action, which is also the name of her recent book published by MIT Press. Williams is co-founder and developer of Envelope.city, a web-based software product that visualizes and allows users to modify zoning in New York City. Before coming to MIT, Williams was Co-Director of the Spatial Information Design Lab at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture Planning and Preservation (GSAPP). Her design work has been widely exhibited including work in the Guggenheim, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Venice Biennale, and the Cooper Hewitt Museum. Williams has won numerous awards including being named one of the top 25 technology planners and Game Changer by Metropolis Magazine. Check out her latest exhibition, Visualizing NYC 2021, at the Center for Architecture in New York City.
David van der Leer, Principal of DVDL DD, is a consultant, educator, moderator, researcher, strategist, and writer. David’s passion is reinventing the institutions of yesterday—and dreaming up the most inspirational institutions of tomorrow—through excellent architecture and interdisciplinary programs. David founded DVDL DD in 2018 after having worked and consulted with institutions, government agencies, corporations, and individuals for 15 years. He has extensive experience in bringing together interdisciplinary teams to create successful design projects. David teaches a course called (Re)Programming Museums at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture Planning and Preservation.
David has created, chaired, and led nearly 30 design competitions, and he has commissioned numerous design and art projects. He enjoys rethinking conventional design competition and commissioning processes, and actively promotes new practices in events like the Design Competition Conference he developed and co-chaired at Harvard University in 2015. Born and raised in The Netherlands, David is a graduate of Erasmus University Rotterdam, and of the High Impact Leadership program at Columbia University’s Business School.