When the instructors were preparing for their first pilot sessions of the project Dynamic Identity in the Netherlands they were warned by teachers that the maximum attention span of the students in the class room would be ten minutes. As the instructors implemented their lesson plans it turned out to be not that bad but it was obvious that many students were jumpy, fiddling around with things and noisy. Students in Poland and Greece were much more disciplined but still little nervous movements that were growing in intensity over time were displayed also there by many students.
Larry Rosen (2012) observed American students for fifteen minutes after they had been told in a research setting to “study something important, including homework, an upcoming examination or project, or reading a book for a course”. Already within two minutes most students started to be distracted by social media messages. And at the end of the 15 minutes period the students had spent on average 65% on their studying and 35% on social media messages. MindShift asked Rosen for a comment: ““We were amazed at how frequently they multitasked, even though they knew someone was watching,” Rosen says. “It really seems that they could not go for 15 minutes without engaging their devices,” adding, “It was kind of scary, actually.””
Multitasking while studying has become normal. A study (year unknown) showed that 80% of the students in the US even text in class rooms (62% in the Netherlands), also when this is strictly forbidden. 51% of the US respondents admitted that they were “distracted from class material” when texting. 49% felt guilty about texting in the class room when it is not allowed. Another study (2010) showed that American undergraduate students use their laptop during lectures for 42% of the time for activities that are not related to the course. It seems that our brain wants to check Facebook every 31 seconds. According to Evernote’s Phil Libin our tech use will only become more frequent: “we’ll be having sessions of 10 seconds each, a thousand times a day.”
Daniel Levitin (The organized mind, 2014) writes: “Although we think we’re doing several things at once, multitasking, this has been shown to be a powerful and diabolical illusion. Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at MIT and one of the world’s experts on divided attention, says that our brains are “not wired to multitask well… When people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do so, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so.”” It appears that it costs us 15 minutes to focus on a new task. Levitin continues: “Multitasking creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop, effectively rewarding the brain for losing focus and for constantly searching for external stimulation.” The dopamine feedback loop might be a partial explanation for outcome 5 that many youngsters open up easily when using technology.
The effects of multitasking are negative according to Levitin. The information learned during multitasking goes to the wrong part of the brain. The constant switching of tasks wears our brain out quickly which makes us feel exhausted, disoriented and anxious. It causes short-term memory loss, and, by implication long-term memory loss because if information isn’t stored in the short-term memory it cannot be transferred further. This is even more true for youngsters than for adults because, according to a study (2015), “brain functions which allow people to store overlapping inputs do not properly develop until adulthood. So teenagers simply cannot keep as many thoughts in their head as adults.” Multitasking leaves the multitasker in a situation of exhaustion, disorientation and anxiety. Therefore, there is simply is no energy left in the brain to reflect on all its activities. Inc. adds: “Millennials find it really hard to direct all of their attention to one thing at a time. … without the ability to live in the moment and finish the task at hand, there is no way to develop the new, creative ideas Millennials are often so excited about. … In addition to showing a lack of focus, multitasking decreases our ability to perform exceptionally at any one task. … Being the jack-of-all-trades unfortunately makes you the master of none.” This description of the effects of multitasking seems to provide a solid explanation for outcome 6 that many youngsters are not reflective on their online activities.
The reason why youngsters seem to start to multitask in the first place is FOMO, the Fear of Missing Out, according to Rosen: “Young people’s technology use is really about quelling anxiety. They don’t want to miss out. They don’t want to be the last person to hear some news, or the ninth person to ‘like’ someone’s post.”
Multitasking and short attention spans are thus provoked by the frequent checking of social media (although some researchers say they are just the symptom of it). In social media short communication messages are the standard. Twitter limits the messages one can send to 140 signs. Facebook only shows a small dialogue box to type in one’s status update. The average length of an SMS is 92.45 signs. The average length of a chat message is probably even smaller. A popular trend in online communication is towards ephemeral messaging: messages that are to selfdestruct after reading. Snapchat is the most visible exponent of this trend but even Facebook is experimenting with it.
Social media communication between individuals rarely takes place by means of delicately phrased arguments that are only given out after a period of reflection. This communication typically consists of short chat messages or of prefabricated memes. According to Brandwatch “memes are meant to be funny of sarcastic” in order to grab our attention. Trolling messages function in the same way. They are to shock and awe by means of concise wording that is both threatening and sarcastic. Instead of using arguments in a discussion trolling messages are to disrupt and discredit. The other side is to be cowed into silence by means of the messages.
The short social media messages seem both cause and result of multitasking and the resulting short attention span. They are short but arrive very frequently. As Levitin noted, the constant switching between tasks wears the brain out. According to him, “[a]ttention is a limited capacity resource.” Daniel Kahneman (Thinking, fast and slow, 2011) agrees. In his opinion our brain can only handle a limited amount of active thinking, a mode of thinking he calls System 2. He explains: “System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it … The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice and concentration.” Kahneman claims that a general “law of least effort” applies to cognitive activities: “The law asserts that if there are several ways of achieving the same goal, people will eventually gravitate to the least demanding course of action. In the economy of action, effort is a cost … Laziness is built deep into our nature.”
American research (2014) shows that even doing nothing comes at a cost. Rather than being alone with their thoughts for 6 to 15 minutes in a room, 25% of the women and 67% of the men in an experiment chose to give themselves an electric shock instead.
The default human mode according to Kahneman is System 1 though. This system “runs automatically”. “System 1 continuously generates suggestions for System 2: impressions, intuitions, intentions and feelings … When all goes smoothly, which is most of the time, System 2 adopts the suggestions of System 1 with little or no modification. You generally believe your impressions and act on your desires”. Kahneman continues: “If endorsed by System 2, impressions and intuitions turn into beliefs, and impulses turn into voluntary actions.”
The flood of social media messages is dealt with by System 1 but also noted by System 2. System 2 is incapable of thoroughly checking the messages and the outcomes of the other activities we do at the same time. Thus, not much learning takes place in the sense that not much information is stored in our short-term memory. But, the messages do leak through to System 2 because, as Kahneman noted, System 2 adopts the suggestions of System 1 with little or no modification in routine situations. The short messages therefore have a short-cut to becoming beliefs and steering our voluntary actions. But they do not constitute one, consistent whole. They are diverse and fragmentary. As a result, the beliefs that rest upon them are more diverse – see outcome 4 – and more fragmentary. The control that we try to gain by using asynchronous means of communication (see outcome 1) is not so much aimed at having the time to write long, consistent messages but rather just aims to empower our feeling of having control. When everything is changing fast, when everything is turning liquid – see outcome 2 – and we multitask, then the feeling of being in control is a rare and valuable event. This might be an important underlying reason for outcome 1 that youngsters prefer asynchronous contact over synchronous contact.
Wired adds: “In 2012, Elon University worked with the Pew Internet and American Life Project to release a report that compiled the opinions of 1,021 critics, experts, and stakeholders, asking for their thoughts on digital natives. Their boiled-down message was that young people now count on the internet as “their external brain” and have become skillful decision makers—even while they also “thirst for instant gratification and often make quick, shallow choices.””
The instructors also noted during all the projects that students do not seem to have too many dreams left. They are mainly focused on reality. Howard Gardner & Katie Davis (The app generation, 2013) have dubbed the current generation therefore “the app generation”: “they’ve come to think of the world as an ensemble of apps, to see their lives as a string of ordered apps”. These apps are the answer, according to Howard, to all questions “except the important ones”. According to Howard & Davis youngsters give (quoting a respondent) “pragmatic, achievable answers” situated in the present or the near future. They quote another participant in their research who states that many young people suffer from a “planning delusion”. Howard & Davis comment on this: “We’ve witnessed this firsthand in our freshman reflection seminars at Harvard. Many students come to college with their lives all mapped out – a super-app.” They conclude: “Today’s youth approach their education as “practical credentialists” who complete the tasks necessary to get the diploma they need to secure a desirable job. They are far more focused on “daily life management” than on developing a long-term purpose. Consider that in 1967, 86 percent of college freshmen said that “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” is “very important” or “essential” to them, compared to just 46 percent in 2012.”
It seems not unreasonable to conclude that youngsters nowadays experience more trouble in storing information in their memory and in dreaming about their future life. Yet, as Anil Ananthaswamy (The man who wasn’t there, 2015) argues, these are the key components of our identity narratives. He defines identity narratives as follows: “the story or stories we tell others and indeed ourselves about who we are; these stories depend on remembering and imagining.”
The formation of our identity stories is not straightforward. According to the synthesis of Ananthaswamy based on interviews with many scientists and others – see below – the human brain has the capacity to turn episodic memories into semantic memories: “We have … a special kind of semantic memory that has to do with knowledge about ourselves – a self-representation system. … this self-representation system is essentially episodic memory that has somehow been turned into semantic memory about oneself.” If our self-representation system works well then episodic memories are continuously being converted to semantic memories, thus creating the gist of who we are.
According to Martin Conway, who is quoted in Ananthaswamy, we possess a conceptual self: “notions of who we are, based on our interactions with others, including family, friends, society, and the broader culture”. In addition, claims Conway, we have a working self: “the purpose of this working self is to reconcile a specific goal … to the current state … and ensure that the discrepancy between the two states is minimal … In other words, the working self regulates behavior.” The working self filters our episodic memory. It “dictates what goes into long-term autobiographical memory and the easy with which it can be accessed. Stories influence who we are, what we do, what we can be … stories can become our reality.” In this whole process “[t]he self’s need for coherence is paramount”.
If the premise by Ananthaswamy is accepted that remembering and imagining are the key aspects of our identity stories, and both aspects are hampered among many youngsters at this moment, then outcome 2 that coherent ready-made identity narratives are absent but are rather created on the spot becomes an explainable outcome. It means that Conway’s conceptual self is not coherent and thus the working self finds itself in the difficult position of forming an identity without a coherent point of reference. This would explain why youngsters feel that they do not play roles and do not learn – see outcome 4 – and only have an identity hunch of whom they are – see outcome 2.
Ananthaswamy takes a look at what happens when our identity narrations completely disappear. To this end he interviewed scientists, Alzheimer’s disease patients and those close to Alzheimer patients. He does so because Alzheimer’s disease “continues to hack away at the narrative until all one is left with is a set of disconnected episodes. Eventually, even those are gone.” What remains is, according to Pia Kontos as quoted in Ananthaswamy: “a precognitive, prereflective selfhood that’s embedded in the body.”
In the early stages of the disease the structure of the identity narrative starts to disintegrate. What stays for a long time though is the so-called reminiscence bump. This is according to Robin Morris, also quoted in Ananthaswamy, a set of memories that we collect when we are “cementing our identities” between the age of 10 and 30. That phase in our lives is a “critical period … where you are defining your self-beliefs and self-concepts … We form the core of our narrative self during this time.” Morris claims: “These basic building blocks – the essential concepts that define who you are – don’t change over your lifetime, or they change more subtly.”
A bleak picture now appears from the above. In the critical period when they should be defining themselves many youngsters do not seem to form a coherent identity core but rather a fragmented identity core that is to function as a point of reference to select additional episodic memories to be added to our semantic memory. In addition, less episodic memories are stored because of multitasking. Although this helps youngsters to survive the liquid times we live in without too much existential anxiety while preserving a feeling of authenticity, it is unsure what the effects of this situation will be in the long run.
Ananthaswamy provides a clue: “without a coherent story about oneself, one seems unable to act; it seems that we need our narrative to function”. The narrative links episodic experiences into a greater whole. The part of the self that deals with the episodic experiences according to Antonio Damasio (quoted in Ananthaswamy) is the core self. The core self is the first intimation of subjectivity … The core self is living in the moment … If all we had was a core self, and many animals likely do, then all we’d be aware of are these moments of subjective experience.”
Ananthaswamy continues: “It’s when the brain evolved further and developed autobiographical memory that the next stage came about – the autobiographical self. Damasio hypothesizes that there is a brain circuitry that is capable of grouping together autobiographical memories into an object (one can think of this object as a story), letting that object interact with and modify the protoself, which then produces a moment of subjectivity. … The autobiographical self would be/ a rapid sequence of such moments of subjectivity. This fully formed self would be the basis of one’s personality.”
Maybe, a less developed autobiographical self will lead back to a more episodic awareness, more disintegrated moments of subjective experience. If this were the case multitasking would be part of a self-reinforcing loop that would cause ever more fragmentation.