By Chuck Norris
Science tells us that, as a species, humans have especially big brains. They also tell us that as we have evolved through the ages and developed, expanding our knowledge and capabilities, our brains have shrunk in the process. Not to worry, says a 2021 Psychology Today blog post, “brain size and indeed the size of brain components is of little if any scientific value in explaining and predicting how intelligent an individual human is,” writes psychologist Daniel Graham.
But for a lot of folks, it can feel like shrinking brain space is crowding our memories to the dark reaches, making them hard to retrieve while tasking our brainpower with so much stuff it makes it near impossible to give our whole attention to what we want and need to concentrate on. According to a recent Time magazine report, it’s gotten to the point where nearly everyone is concerned about their ability to concentrate these days.
Margaret Sibley is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington School of Medicine who specializes in working with adolescents and adults who have ADHD, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. As she explains to Time’s health correspondent Jamie Ducharme, she and her colleagues have recently been “inundated” with clients who don’t have ADHD. “They’re just worried they do,” says Ducharme.
Such worries can be anxiety-inducing. As a 2021 Healthline report reminds us, anxiety can serve as a powerful distractor and can affect your memory. “Worries might occupy your thoughts to the point where you can’t seem to escape them, even when you try,” says Healthline. “Worry and distress might eventually become repeating background tracks for your day. … Once you realize you’ve forgotten some important things, you might even start to wonder whether something serious is going on. And you might begin to fixate on those concentration and memory issues. … You might find yourself stuck in a cycle of nervousness and worry, unable to stop mentally running through dreaded potential outcomes. This anxiety loop can take up a lot of mental energy,” they report. Such near-constant stress and hypervigilance takes a toll.
“It’s always a good idea to reach out if your memory problems cause distress. Worrying about what’s going on can fuel more anxiety, making the problem worse,” advises Healthline. Apparently, a lot of folks have been doing just that — reaching out.
According to a recent study published in the JAMA Health Forum, from 2019 to 2022, the use of mental health services in this country “jumped by almost 40% among millions of U.S. adults with commercial insurance,” writes Time’s Ducharme. “About one in eight U.S. adults now takes an antidepressant and one in five has recently received some kind of mental-health care, an increase of almost 15 million people in treatment since 2002,” she adds. “Almost a third of U.S. adults now report symptoms of either depression or anxiety, roughly three times as many as in 2019, and about one in 25 adults has a serious mental illness like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia,” says Ducharme.
“Even among people who haven’t sought medical care, there seems to be a sense — probably enhanced by regular studies about shrinking attention spans — that focusing is getting harder,” Ducharme goes on to say. “A recent U.K. survey found that about half of adults think their attention spans are getting shorter, and plenty of teachers say the same thing is happening with kids.”
“Distractibility is nothing new,” Ducharme reminds us, paraphrasing Sibley. “Focus naturally waxes and wanes depending on a range of factors, from how much sleep someone got the night before to how interested they are in the task at hand. But the ‘cocktail’ of anxieties inherent to modern life can make for a particularly potent drain on attention. … In modern life, Sibley says, we’re essentially living in a room filled with distractions all the time, thanks to the competing demands of work and home life, societal stressors like the pandemic, and the constant temptation of phones, social media, and the internet.”
“Screens present a unique minefield of distractibility, with their constant flow of notifications and information — and that’s by design,” according to Gloria Mark, author and professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine, Ducharme says. “Human brains want novelty, excitement, and social connection, and devices play into those desires. Checking a notification flashing across your screen can provide a small hit of dopamine, creating a sense of reward that keeps you coming back for more.” When you give in to temptation by pausing a task to check your phone, your brain also has to shift gears to stop what it was previously doing and move to a new task. Your brain gets used to constant diversions and engages in them out of habit, says the Time magazine report.
“It’s hard to objectively nail down how long someone’s attention span really is and how it’s changing over time,” notes Ducharme. “Even diagnostic criteria for ADHD — significant and chronic attention issues that interfere with someone’s daily life — are somewhat subjective. Among people who don’t meet that bar, the picture is even murkier.”
What we do know according to an American Psychological Association report is that, as of 2023, more than three-quarters of U.S. adults reported feeling stressed at work, almost 60% experienced elements of burnout, and nearly 20% felt they work in a “toxic” environment.
“We often normalize these problems,” Ducharme writes in her September report. “But they are not trivial. Countless studies show that chronic stress is bad for the body and mind, and burnout is linked to everything from depression to premature death, research shows.”
Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook’s “Official Chuck Norris Page.” He blogs at http://chucknorrisnews.blogspot.com. To find out more about Chuck Norris and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.
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