How Digital Technologies Are Affecting Attention Systems

07/07/2016 10:04 | Updated 07 July 2016

American anthropologist, John Tooby, says attention would have been one of the earliest adaptations in the evolution of the human mind. As learning which stimuli to attend to, switching our attention between different stimuli and applying effective gaze control would have helped ensure our survival and shaped the development of our attention systems. This dialogue and feedback loop between our environment and cognitive systems is ongoing, meaning our attention systems will continue to evolve and adapt. Therefore in an increasingly complex world, it's crucial for businesses and brands alike to understand how this fundamental system is changing and its impact on marketing strategies. The more we understand how a target demographic is perceiving the world the more accurate our communication will be.

Everyday we interact with a multitude of sensory inputs that compete for access to cognitives processes and brain systems to accomplish goals such as decision making and problem solving. Our attention systems modulate the different types of stimuli to assess what is relevant to a current behaviour or activity. In other words if we were reading a book and felt a draft, we would attend to the new stimuli and put on a jumper. Equally, if we sensed a fly in the room we may choose to ignore it as it is an irrelevant stimuli to task at hand.

Briefly, there are three main attention types; selective, divided, and sustained. Selective allows us to choose between one stimulus over another. Divided allows us to share our attention with various stimuli, such as walking while talking on the phone. Sustained attention, allows a person to direct and focus on a specific stimuli in order to complete a specific cognitive activity, like reading a book.

The impact digital technology has on our attention systems has two sources, one it is the new mechanisms we are employing through it use, i.e. scrolling a page versus reading. The second is the changes in lifestyle it provided by the digital platforms; being able to work longer hours, having 24 hour access to information, increased social reach.

There are now a handful of studies highlighting the impact on our attention systems, however longitudinal data is still needed to assess structural and long term changes. The brain has plasticity, meaning it continues to form new connections throughout our entire lives adapting in structure to address new environmental challenges. For example, if were to sit in front of a screen for hours a day, our eyes, motor skills and spatial configuration would begin to adapt to the new digital environment.

The first change is highlighted in a study conducted by Microsoft, it claims sustained attention on a task reduced from 12 seconds in 2000 to 8 seconds in 2013. However, we must consider that sustained attention is still influenced by cognitive elements such as curiosity, which affects how long we keep our attention on a task or event. In other words, in tasks where there is high curiosity little has changed. Conversely, this study also highlighted showed we are becoming better at switching between tasks and extracting needed information from various stimuli faster. In other words we are categorising information as relevant or irrelevant faster.

Secondly, our reward system is shortening. With digital technology "we no longer need to wait, to acknowledge the passing of time between cause and effect, action and reaction". This may be causing our brains to find it more rewarding to go and seek new stimuli or information than sustaining it in one task. This could prove quite for complex problem solving, as we are now trading in knowledge and data. Therefore the better, faster, more effective we are at searching for new information the more valuable we become to others.

Finally, attention is influenced by factors such as perceptual load. It "occurs when the number of different-identity items that need to be perceived are increased, or that for the same number of items perceptual identification is more demanding on our attention systems". Our ability to select what to pay attention to and what to ignore "depends on higher cognitive functions, such as working memory, which is used for actively maintaining current processing priorities to ensure that low-priority stimuli do not gain control of behaviour". Therefore, when there is a high load of stimuli these cognitive functions drain the capacity available for "active control and result in increased processing of irrelevant distractors" In other words we will find it more challenging understanding what stimuli is more important to attain to. This could have consequences to decision making and problem solving. Imagine, if we paid attention to a car at the other side of the street rather than the bus, which is about to pass by, you would get run over!

These studies are showing us that companies and brands need to be aware of how these attentional changes will impact communication and marketing strategies. There are three new questions to consider; How have the attention systems of our clients changed? How are they processing information? What platforms are best suited to capture and sustain their attention?