How Digital Platforms Are Changing Our Attention Systems

American anthropologist, John Tooby, says attention would have been one of the earliest adaptations in the evolution of the human mind. Learning which stimuli to attend to, being efficient at switching our attention between different stimuli and applying effective motor and gaze control would have helped ensure our survival.  This dialogue and feedback loop between our environment and cognitive systems is ongoing, which means that our attention systems will continue to evolve and adapt based on environmental cues. Therefore, it’s crucial for businesses and brands alike to understand how this fundamental system is changing and its impact on marketing strategies. The more we understand how a target demographic is perceiving the world the more accurate our communication will be.  

Everyday we interact with a multitude of sensory inputs that compete for access to cognitives processes and brain systems to accomplish goals such as decision making and problem solving. Our attention systems modulate the different types of stimuli to assess what is relevant to a current  behaviour or activity. In other words if you were reading a book and felt a draft, you would to attend to the new stimuli and put on a jumper. Equally, if you sensed a fly in the room you may choose to ignore the stimuli as it is irrelevant to the current task.

Briefly, there are three  attention types; selective, divided, and sustained. Selective allows us to choose between one stimulus over another. Divided attention allows us to share our attention with various stimuli, such as walking while talking on the phone. Thirdly,sustained attention, allows a person to direct and focus on a specific stimuli in order to complete a specific cognitive activity, like reading a book.

The changes we are experiencing are not from technology alone but what it helps facilitate. For example, digital technology allow us to have 24/7 access to information, emails, and social interactions. In consequence, most of us can now juggle portfolio careers in different time zones. Secondly, knowledge is being disseminated at faster speeds which is increasing our thirst for new information. Finally,  we are engaging with far wider and diverse social groups on both a professional and personal level.



Studies are seeing a change in the attention systems, however whether they are structural or permanent changes that is still up for debate and further research. We understand that the brain is plastic and it continues to form new connections throughout our entire lives making us highly adaptable. Plasticity also allows our brain to change it capabilities to adjust to new challenges. For example, if we sit in front of a screen for hours a day, our eyes will begin to adapt to the new digital environment, our motor skills, spatial configurations will also adapt. The longer we spend in the digital world the more proficient in it we will be. It is important to note this is not a piece on the positive or negative effects as that is a cultural view. Instead our role is to shed understanding on how digital technology is changing us to give brands and businesses a more empathic relationship with clients.  

A study conducted by Microsoft claimed that sustained attention was reduced to 8 seconds per task compared to 12 seconds over a timespan of just a couple of years. However, there is a caveat to this, as sustained attention is still influenced by cognitive elements such as curiosity, the level of sustained attention will still be dependent on how curious and motivated a person is about the task at hand. Conversely, this study also highlighted that we are getting better at switching between tasks and extracted needed information from various stimuli faster. In other words we are making decisions faster about what is relevant or irrelevant.

Secondly, our  reward system is shortening. With digital technology “we no longer need to wait, to acknowledge the passing of time between cause and effect, action and reaction.” This may be causing our brains to find it more rewarding to go and seek new stimuli or information  than sustaining it in one task.This could prove quite useful for the current world that we live in, as we are now trading in knowledge and data.  Therefore the better, faster, more effective we are at searching for new information the more valuable we become to others.  

Finally, attention is influenced by various factors such as perceptual load. Perceptual load occurs when “the number of different-identity items that need to be perceived is increased, or that for the same number of items perceptual identification is more demanding on our attention systems”. Our ability to select what to pay attention to and what to ignore “depends on higher cognitive functions, such as working memory, which is used for actively maintaining current processing priorities to ensure that low-priority stimuli do not gain control of behavior”. Therefore when there is a high load of stimuli these cognitive functions drain the capacity available for “active control and result in increased processing of irrelevant distractors”. In other words we will find it more challenging and even confusing to what stimuli to pay attention to.This can have consequences on problem solving and decision making.

Research on the influence of digital technology on humans is still in its early days. However, increasing amounts of evidence are pointing towards that direction. Therefore if a business wants their audience to pay attention to their services or products, they will need to take how attention systems are changing into consideration.


Further Reading:

Lavie et al., 2000

Baruth et al., 2010


This blog post was written by fellow cuber Araceli Camargo. Araceli is one of the founders of The Centric Lab, a consultancy and research organisation providing useable and practical insight to organisations wanting to better understand how people interact with space. If you are interested in joining our community too, just drop us an email on