Digital devices are a technology that accesses media and information; laptops, smartphones, tablets, televisions and computer screens. The devices are catalysing and affording a new culture of high information consumption. We must understand the human consequences of this new mode of consumption.
A key trait amongst most mammalian species is curiosity, it is a drive to seek new information. It is curiosity that led to access new types of food resources, explore new territories, and it landed us on the moon. Formally curiosity can be defined in terms of emotion, behaviour, and task. We feel a need to be curious, we behave in a curious manner, and we do things based on curiosity.
In the context of today’s culture we are satiating our curiosity through digital devices as they are a portal for which to access an ordinate amount of information. Digital devices are fully integrated into nearly every aspect of our lives. Imagine the change in productivity if we couldn’t answer emails on a train, or how our social connections would change if we couldn’t access loved ones around the clock, or how our perception of autonomy and safety would change if we didn’t have our phones to call for help? Ofcom has presented statistics which indicate that people are spending nearly 9 hours per day on various devices. Young people (16-24) are doing 14 hours per day and children are also spending more time on screens than they do on other activities.
These stats should be taken with caution as this is not representative to all sections of society. For low income families, their situations is quite opposite. Their lack of access to digital technology is having an effect on their ability to excel at school and work at the same rate as their digitally connected counterparts. This is referred to as digital inequality, which is focusing on how access to, and the use of digital technologies varies among people with or without access to the internet.
There are two things to take away from this part; the first is that digital devices are a portal of access to information and the second is the amount and rate of information is the important factor rather than the device. In the next part we will look at what this consumption is doing to our attention systems.
The most affected attention type by our increasing consumption of information is called sustained attention. This type of attention is defined as the ability to direct and focus cognitive activity on a specific stimuli for a specific amount of time. This ability allows us to complete any planned activity, sequenced activity or action, or thought process. We use sustained attention for reading a book or holding a conversation. One of the key factors in being able to sustain attention is the ability to select and focus on specific goal rather than automatically attending to all other stimulus, this is called cognitive control. The length of time a person can sustain attention is de ned as “attention span”. This type of attention is very important for higher cognitive abilities such as learning. For example if a person is in an important meeting and will later need to recall what was said for future application, it would be necessary for that person to stay focused throughout the conversation.
The longer a person keeps their attention on the task at hand the more effective the brain will be at encoding the information. This in turn will allow for higher recall rate at a later point in time (memory).
Our attention spans are perceived to be diminishing since the adoption of digital devices, however these indications should be caveated. One, there is little study from a neuroscience perspective, therefore we do not fully understand if these differences are causing brain changes or if they are long term. We should also consider the type of task as we don’t seem to have a problem sustaining attention when it comes to our digital phones. This might be driven by novelty, events of high value and interest will still capture and sustain our attention. Therefore it might be more accurate to say that our attention is becoming more selective, we no longer seem to have the patience of “sticking with it” if a task is perceived of low value, i.e boring. However, this is only based on observation rather than on neuroscience. This knowledge gap presents a place for further neuroscience research to emerge. If there is a evidence that our attention spans are changing then we should take this into consideration when looking at improving way finding in cities.
It is important to look at behaviour patterns in children as they will be the next generation of city users. A U.S.-wide observational study of over 600 teachers across kindergarten to high school with varied years of service, subjects and technology knowledge reported that children are facing new challenges due to their high levels of media use. What is interesting is that in the case of children there seems to go beyond attention. The teachers reported trouble with eye contact and face to face communication as well as a lowered ability to “put the effort into areas that don’t give them instant gratification.” If this trajectory continues it would be fair to infer that problems with complex problem solving will be a big challenge as well as long term bonding. This could have serious societal consequence as we have already established the importance of productivity and social bonding for city prosperity.
Again we will caveat that we do not understand yet if these behavioural changes are long term or their neurological underpinnings. Furthermore, this is not all children, this very much a western and middle class perspective. However, it is important to include these observations in this playbook as they provide context for future neuroscience led research which could then be used to understand how cognitive changes have an effect on how we perceive and interact with our environment.
RELEVANCE TO BUILT ENVIRONMENT
If attention spans and patterns are changing, there is a need to rethink transport elements such as the design of intersection crossings, pedestrian signals, and signage. Research should now look at how spatial cognition is changing due to devices, a recent study showed that when a person is using instructed sat nav devices telling them where to go, certain brain areas like the hippocampus, “simply don't respond to the street network. In that sense our brain has switched off its interest in the streets around us”.
In Augsburg, Germany, they are changing some of the traffic signals to keep with changing sight lines. They have now installed traffic lights on the pavement, which is in the same sight line as their smartphones. As people spend more time gazing down at their devices when they walk, it impedes gazing at other relevant stimuli including traffic signals. However are these solutions great for the long-term? Should we instead research how to make the physical environment more salient and relevant to people, so they are not needing to seek stimulation from their devices?
Understand how to design cities with orchestrated visual variance to encourage people to see information from their physical environment rather than turning to their phones. Transport for London’s initiative to afford easy and quick walkability to their destination called “Legible London” started this narrative in 2006. We now have an opportunity to use this existing research and enhance it with neuroscience insights for further adoption.
Neuroscientist Colin Ellard from Waterloo University in Canada proposed the idea that “boring facades” affect engagement and dwell in cities. His self-reporting and observation study claims that “long, unbroken, featureless facades cause passersby to become unhappy, bored, and perhaps even a little angry”. Whilst this yet to have neuro-scientific data, it is important to note that people do not like the facades that are typical to most corporate campuses. When there is a reduction in curiosity due to low levels of relevant or interesting stimuli, people turn away from it and disengage. This is important to take into consideration when planning these big work campuses. Especially, in the face of changing attention spans.
The opposite of boring doesn’t mean the Vegas Strip, we still should take into consideration context and value as it was discussed in the section on perception.
Curiosity and Need for Cognition Kenneth Olson, Cameron Camp, Dana Fuller. 1984 - https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.2466/pr0.19126.96.36.199
Adults’ media use and attitudes OFCOM. 2017 - https://www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0020/102755/adults-media-use-attitudes-2017.pdf
Digital Inequality and Low-Income Households OFFICE OF POLICY DEVELOPMENT AND RESEARCH (PD&R). 2016 - https://www.huduser.gov/portal/periodicals/em/fall16/highlight2.html
Attention and Cognitive Control. Posner, M. I., & Snyder, C. R. R. (2004) - http://psycnet.apa.org/record/2005-07323-012
Cognitive neuroscience of human memory. Gabrieli JD. 1998 - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9496622
Children, Teens, and Entertainment Media: The View from the Classroom. A Common Sense Research Study. 2012 - https://www.commonsensemedia.org/research/children-teens-and-entertainment-media-the-view-from-the-classroom