MP: Well, the problem with “attention span” is that the psychologists mean something quite different than the lay definition. So the psychological definition is the number of items you can take in at a single glance. That is very limited, and probably hasn’t been changed. Now, I could be wrong about that; certainly the definitive studies haven’t and maybe can’t be done, because, of course, things are changing all the time, so if you study one cohort, you’d be studying a different group than another cohort.

But the layperson means, by “attention span”, “How long will I continue to work on a particular task?” And that’s much more difficult to know whether there’s been any change there. It could very well be… people usually say “Well, people won’t sit down and read War and Peace because they’re used to reading short.” And that may very well be true, but the adaptations that’ll allow us to read short pieces on the Web and to move back and forth between one source of information, one blog and so on, you know, if we choose to change those by settling down, turning off and working on something else… since plasticity is rare, we probably could change to a different style of processing information. But there are, of course, advantages and disadvantages to every style.

RJ: So, in your opinion, is there a concern for society? The kind of rapid changes in available information and kind of dissemination of news, information, from formation of knowledge?

MP: Well, the human is an adaptable person. Changing all the time. If we believe that we are or were kind of the best that we can be now or fifty years ago or a hundred years ago, then those changes will be seen as disadvantages. But of course we’re changing as the media industry changes. There is, of course, a lot of conservation. It isn’t that the human is a completely different organism. But there is adaptability, too, and there are changes, and they have advantages and disadvantages. Depends on what you like, I guess.

RJ: So I take it you’re—would you say on the balance optimistic as far as the technological changes and information?

MP: Well, yeah, I guess that would be said to be. At least, I don’t think that we’re in a dire situation, and that the media has dumbed us down to a huge degree or anything like that. I don’t see any real evidence. In fact, worldwide measures of intelligence, such as we can make them, have improved greatly over the last hundred years or so.

RJ: Are there trends—I don’t know if you’ve looked at them—but are there trends in media consumption and attention that you’ve seen change? Or maybe not even just attention, but the amount of information available, and how people—

MP: Yeah, this question I really can’t answer; that is, I haven’t done anything to look at the actual media changes. But, of course, in our daily life, we’re all familiar with things that we can do, like, you know, record telephone calls. If you wanted to have me visually present, you could do that now, which wouldn’t have been possible a few years ago and so on. So, yes, of course, we’re all familiar with some changes. But I haven’t really studied this at all.

RJ: OK. Do you have any ideas for the sort of things journalists or editors can learn from the study of cognitive science and attention, whether it’s packaging their information differently, or anything like that?

MP: Well, you know, media people seem fairly well knowledgeable about what’ll get orienting of attention. I notice that the ads now on the Web—you know, in the newspaper, it’s pretty easy to avoid the ads. But on the Web, now, if you click on the wrong place you suddenly have a moving, colorful display, which is, of course, totally unrelated to what you wanted to think about. And so it’s clear that a lot of what we know attracts attention has been exploited by advertisers. And, I assume that people who are writing journalistic pieces are studying, you know, memory aspects and what leads to sustaining interest in articles and so on and so on, like that. So, yes, I think everything we know in cognitive science gets kind of written for people who are, you know, producing media and they are presumably adapting things that will be of better usage.

Russ Juskalian is a contributor to The Observatory and a freelance writer.