Do vets have the attention span of a gnat or an elephant? - Veterinary Practice
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Do vets have the attention span of a gnat or an elephant?

Chris Whipp raises the issue of attention spans apparently getting shorter and discusses why the management of our spans may be the next major business opportunity to be exploited

THE title of this article is, of
course, misleading but it raises
an issue that is of paramount
importance in our busy 24/7 world.

In this, the first of a two part article,
we will look at why attention span
and its management may be the next
major business opportunity there to be
exploited. Next month we will look at
how to “Talk to the elephant”, “Meet
the monkey halfway” or whatever
other euphemism you might prefer for
working with attention.

It is
accepted in
our internet-
driven world
that our
spans are
shorter, typified by the fact that most
surfers on the web spend less than one
minute on a website before moving on
or, if you are creating an online video,
then three minutes is often far too long
and if you haven’t got your message
over in the first 30 seconds then
you have probably lost a lot of your
audience. Look at your own internet
behaviour, does this ring any bells?


We all tell ourselves that we are fair,
intelligent, reasoning individuals
making decisions in a consistent and
rational way through logical thought.
The truth is frequently quite different.

The seat of conscious thought is
the pre-frontal cortex (PFC) a layer of
cells barely 5mm thick that covers part
of the front aspect of the brain. In
evolutionary terms it is very young and
has a surprisingly limited functional capacity, contrary to what you might

  • we can only think consciously about
    one thing at a time;
  • we can only hold maybe three ideas
    in our head at any one time;
  • proportionately, it has huge energy
    requirements and can easily become
  • limited capacity which is easily
    overwhelmed by excessive inputs;
  • slow by comparison to other areas
    of the brain.

All of these make it unsuited to
the information overload to which
we currently subject ourselves which
means the semi and automated parts
of the brain become used more and
more and conscious attention is lost.

Whilst I would not be as pessimistic,
renowned Australian neuroscientist
David Rock suggests that the average
person now gets barely two hours of
high-quality creative thought per week.

Vets are often highly intelligent,
driven individuals heavily invested in
their cognitive and intellectual skills
and when overload gets out of control
significant well-being issues arise with
which we are often ill-equipped to deal.

Whirlpool of

Success in business is usually about
doing things differently or better
than the competition and as so many
of us are sucked inexorably into the
whirlpool of information overload,
tomorrow’s successes will be those
who choose, and work at, not to be
sucked in.

The problem, of course, is that this
is counterintuitive because you need to
increase the use of the PFC at just the
time you think you don’t have the time
to do so.

For those brave enough to invest
their time and effort, the good news is
that the necessary skills are learnable,
offering improved wellness and a
business edge.

Attention span is the amount of
concentrated time that can be spent
on a task without being distracted.
It is frequently split into “transient
attention” and “selected sustained

The former is a
short-term response
to a stimulus that
attention: this may
last something in
the region of eight

Selected sustained
attention is the
attention we choose to
apply to a task.

It is impossible to state a specific
time because this varies with person,
age, nutrition, motivation and task; 40
minutes is a commonly quoted figure
but Hobbit fans might argue that they
can maintain their attention for an 111⁄2
hour movie marathon!


In reality, it is about applying attention,
resting and renewing attention as
defined by the task/motivation.

The better you can focus on the task
and, to some degree the longer you can
maintain that focus, the better.

That having been said, the common
behaviour of clinging to a task to the
point of completion is often bad in
that the PFC is given little opportunity
to rest and refresh and quality can

Whilst the internet can be a boon,
it can also be the bringer of large
quantities of questionable data.

When researching attention span for
this article, I was completely unable to find any data on the attention span of
an elephant (memory span is obviously
something completely different).

I was, however, directed to multiple
sources that confidently assured
me that the attention span of a
gnat was 0.210005 seconds but left
me wondering who completed this Herculean task and
where is the evidence?

So, you might
well ask, “What’s
the relevance of the
elephant and the

In Jonathan Haidt’s
book The Happiness
he likens
the elephant to the semi and automatic brain which is
influenced by gut feelings, intuition,
emotions and unconscious drives.
Influenced by our genes, our early
upbringing, our education and our
experience, the elephant is both huge
and strong and potentially out of
control for more of the time that we
might wish to admit.

By contrast, the rider reflects the
conscious brain with its sense of
direction, controlled thought and
rationality, frequently oblivious to the
size and power of the beast that we
seek to control.

In Ajahn Sumedo’s book Meeting
the Monkey Halfway
, the analogy is
continued but predates the internet by
some 2,500 years.

In many ancient Asian wisdom
teachings, the monkey is a symbol
for a restless mind that “…bounces
capriciously from one activity to
another – restless, wayward and
unsettled” (sound familiar?).

Meeting the monkey is about
making a dynamic effort to engage
with the mind and “half way”
recognises that it is about balance and
not control.

Next month, we will look how we
can train and develop the attention and
tricks to improve and keep attention.
If you would like to know more about
this subject, e-mail

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