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How Attention Deficit on The Internet Led to Faster Learning

Almost every negative has a silver lining, and almost everything positive probably has some imperfection to it. Most things are somewhere in the middle, understood as generally bad or generally good, but with a significant flip side.

One such issue might be the attention deficit caused by internet's constant stream of information and distractions. It's not necessarily a full blown disorder, albeit it might be for some, but it is a tendency that probably everyone of us who is using the internet extensively has experienced to some degree. We multitask a lot, and find it harder to keep our attention on a single thing for long. It's why listicles are such a popular form of content on the internet, and part of why I'll try to make this article easier to read attentively by splitting it into sub-headings.

The Problem: Information Overload

The obvious cause of attention deficit, or the increasing difficulty to focus on a single thing while on the internet, is the information overload and our struggle to cope with it.

The overload manifests itself in two key ways. One is the sheer amount of content that you could be consuming right now, and which you might be tempted to pursue. The second is the sheer amount of content that's already hitting you whether it is from your Facebook news feed, Twitter, momentary YouTube recommendations and related videos, and so on.

You're swimming in abundance, and so you have to triage, because you can't possibly have enough time for all of what you might be interested in moment to moment. But if you're among the more curious ones you'll still try to cram as much as possible, and you might even feel a kind of anxiety when reading one article, pushing you to hurry up and swallow it up as soon as possible, because you've got so much more waiting on you.

How many of you have barely manageable amounts of content saved up in your Pocket?

The result is that you're basically forcing yourself to consume more in less time, which has to affect your attention. You can't hurry through an article and expect to pay as full attention to it as you would if you didn't hurry through it. And of course, you'll then prefer shorter pieces of content to longer ones.

The Solution: Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

When people find it so difficult to pay attention that they begin ignoring comprehensive pieces of content, like in-depth articles on important topics, what do we do? Do we just give up on trying to present comprehensive information and go with the dumbing down trend?

No, we try to deliver information more efficiently, and pictures are a great example. You could write a thousand words, or you could simply show a picture. This is why pictures and graphics have become so important and popular on the internet. Almost every listicle comes with a picture for each point. Internet memes, pictures with incredibly short but effective caps locked half sentences, are everywhere.

Another recently popular form are infographics.

Infographics are peculiar in that they're basically an in-between, taking the best of both worlds, the world of written word and the world of engaging and effective imagery. A good infographic can be an equivalent to a really in depth piece of literary presentation, but it comes in a form that keeps your attention and allows you to read and understand it much faster than you would if you had to read a bunch of pages full of dry writing.

Other similar forms are videos with illustrative animations, interactive online courses like those on Khan Academy and Udemy, and so on.

So we've got forms of content that present about the same amount of information in a way that most people can grasp much faster. This is interesting..

The Consequence: Faster Learning

It's interesting because this ability to understand more information in less time, thanks to more engaging forms of content presentation, means we should be learning and understanding a lot more a lot faster, resulting in exactly the opposite of the dumbing down trend that some fear.

When we look at the chain of events that led to this we might reach a conclusion that the internet is, after all, helping us evolve our brain capacities:

Rise of The Internet -> Abundance of Information -> Attention Fatigue and Deficit -> More efficient information presentation forms -> We consume and process a lot more information than before, successfully -> We become smarter?

Of course, whether we become smarter on average because of this is very arguable. Having more information stored in our brains doesn't always translate to more true knowledge, and having more knowledge doesn't necessarily translate to wisdom, or the ability to put the knowledge to good uses. However, having the ability to pick up on more knowledge faster certainly means a lot more people who are capable of translating information to wise uses will be doing so, and that could end up being a good thing - and much of it because we've had trouble paying attention!

Learning to Filter

An obvious alternative, or a complementary strategy, is to get better at filtering all of the information we're bombarded with. This has been a trend among many whom are looking to increase their productivity and overall happiness. If you ask yourself do you really need to read what you've got the impulse to read next you might realize that half of what you're plowing through probably doesn't matter that much in the end, or at least isn't worth spending time on right now.

If this is a trend, people becoming better at making choices when faced with an abundance of choices, it's a yet another way that information overload and the consequent attention problems resulted in a positive outcome. It takes a bit of practiced wisdom and some will power to refuse what is readily available and somewhat tempting because you've made an intuitive judgment that it's not worthwhile.

This article was inspired by 13 Reasons Why Your Brain Craves Infographics which illustrates the science behind why this form of content is so much more efficient at delivering ideas and knowledge.

Photo by SparkCBC. Some Rights Reserved.