Brain Science: How Long Can Learners Pay Attention?

By Art Kohn

I have the pleasure of working with a lot of instructional designers and some of the most common questions that come up involve the capability of the human brain. They want to know how much people can learn, and for how long people can pay attention.

“Attention span” refers to the amount of time an individual can remain focused on a task without becoming distracted. This is an important variable since people with longer attention spans are able to be more creative, make fewer errors, and are more likely to achieve their goals.Current researchers argue that the average attention span of American adults has dropped and it is limited to 20, 10, or even five minutes.If this is true, the numbers are troubling since we clearly need more bandwidth to provide them with important information. The interesting question is “why?”

Brain changes and short attention spans

The late educator Neil Postman believed that modern technologies such as television and the Internet are actually reducing people’s attention span. He proposed that our frantic world has somehow rewired the human brain, making us less able to attend to things for long periods.In fact there is precedent for such a view.

For example, the human eyeball, which is a sensory outgrowth of the brain, actually changes shape because of early visual experience. For instance, if a child engages in close-up activities like reading or playing computer games for prolonged periods, the human eyeball develops into a more oval shape to better accommodate these close up images.

The downside of this reshaping, however, is that the children then become myopic (nearsighted) and have difficulty focusing on distant objects.

Researchers propose a similar process to explain the shortening of adults’ attention spans (and perhaps the epidemic of attention deficit disorders in children). The theory states that because of exposure to our frantic world with its persistent thrills, challenges, and competition, a person’s brain somehow rewires itself to better accommodate this rapid pace. The downside is that same brain has difficulty focusing on the more mundane experiences of everyday life.

Delivering information as-needed

But brain changes can’t completely explain the shortening of our attention spans. Although many learners lose interest in our training after only five minutes, these same people are capable of focusing for two hours listening to a celebrity lecture, or watching a National Geographic special. As a result, we know their brains are capable of paying attention. It’s just that they don’t pay attention to our training.

Another explanation for short attention spans is that the content we are teaching people is inherently uninteresting. According to this theory, learners, especially Millennials, are accustomed to seeking information on an as-needed basis and therefore they are unwilling to attend to material that is not immediately interesting and valuable.

Again, there may be some truth in this. The advent of instant information has made people impatient with traditional spoon-fed training. Instead, they want to guzzle knowledge when, but only when, they need it.

Again, I expect that this is part of the answer, but only a part. The content we deliver is important and it helps people be more successful in their careers. So there must be another factor explaining why people lose interest in our material so quickly.

Is it our fault?

A third factor that contributes to people’s short attention span comes much closer to home: perhaps the training materials we deliver are, quite frankly, not very engaging. Perhaps we are under so much time pressure to deliver content that we ignore the basic lessons to teach in ways that are interactive, meaningful, and engaging.

Anecdotal evidence supports this idea. At a recent conference, I asked a room of 400 instructional designers how many of them would enjoy taking online training that was developed by their colleagues. Only about 50 hands went up. Fifty!

That is disappointing, and it has to be a call to action: We need to find ways to continue to improve our instructional techniques.

Teaching is an aerobic sport, and if done well, you can make any material engaging. On the other hand, if you do teaching poorly, any material can be made dull. At my university, we have one faculty member who makes her basic accounting class into an engaging and even exciting learning experience. We have another faculty member who manages to make his human sexuality course dull.

There is not a lot we can do to change the wiring of people’s brains. But we can learn more about how the brain works, and use that knowledge more effectively. Next month we will look at a powerful cognitive function called the a priori gap.

Digging deeper

To learn more about how our lifestyle may affect our attention span, start by reading Neil Postman’s book, Amusing Ourselves to Death.

If you would like to have your memory of this article boosted, send an email to will automatically receive a series of boosters on this series of three articles. The boosters take only seconds to complete, and they will profoundly increase your ability to recall the content of these article.


Postman, Neil and Andrew Postman. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (Revised Edition). New York: Penguin Books, 2005. (Editor’s Note: The 1985 original edition is still available in paperback and hardcover from various booksellers on the web. The 2005 revised edition is available in paperback and as an electronic book.)

Reprinted from Learning Solutions Magazine


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