Attention Part 1 – Why we can’t keep Attention

There is 30 seconds to grab it and 10 minutes to retain it. It is called attention.

What brain scientists say is that humans can not concentrate for a long period for a single task requiring attention. Let it be a business presentation, requirement discussion with a customer or anything, you have maximum of 10 minutes for a single task.

The above is what I found when I searched the web when I was preparing a Powerpoint Slide Deck. My immediate feeling was that something is wrong here. Today’s demands from the brain is for longer concentration, longer work schedule, etc. There seems to be an obvious miss-match of demand – supply. Going on further I found some answers which gave me something to satisfy although I still have a feeling something is wrong is somewhere. I found the answer in human evaluation.

I found two justifications for short term concentration.

Brain can take short term stress

Human body is the ultimate survival machine. That is why we are dominating the world where as well equipped, well suited animals like lions, elephants, etc. How human mind support this survival strategy is to do every thing possible to avoid or overcome danger. For example, if our ancestors finds a tiger while searching for food, he need to overcome the tiger. While doing so, the human brain runs through lot of stress. Downside of this is that the brain cannot sustain high amount of stress for a long period. Continuing the same example, if he face a tiger, either he will have to run away from beast or be killed by it. In any case stress is short term. Funny enough.

Now, how does this relate to our civilized environment where we don’t find tigers in our offices.

Although we dont find real tigers, we always subjected to stress by means of requiring high concentration. Be it in a presentation, human mind need to concentrate hard if you need to understand what is being present. If the presentation is boring or not relavent, harder the concentration required. Harder the concentration, higher the stress.

The human brain cannot sustain this stress for long time and therefore after 10 or less minutes, the stress cannot be taken and brain turn to something else.

Further reading on Rule #8 on Brain Rules


Need for Task Switching

This is the other reason I found. Don’t confuse this with multitasking.

Human brain is always looking to switch the task specially in case if the current task is boring. This is another reason why you have only 10 minutes to keep the attention in a presentation.

Again this behavior of the brain is nicely explained by human evaluation.

Let’s say that when our human ancestor looking for food, he finds an areas with fruits. He start enjoying it but not till his stomach is completely full. Why? Two reasons. First is that there can be other areas in the wild which has much better fruits than this. Secondly if he fills his belly with this kind of fruit, he will not have all the other nutrients which he needs to survive. These reasons lead our human brain not to concentrate for longer durations and we are still carrying that brain over the shoulders.  


Human evaluation by natural selection is a very powerful and strong tool which contributed where we are today. The only disadvantage (may be it is not that bad) is that it takes time. Any good thing does come with a price. What the scientists say is that still the human brain is not evolved to cater today’s demand of long concentration and it still work for survival rather than for working on safer environments. It obvious that the humans society has moved faster than brain can afford and human brain has a catching up job to do.

It is also obvious that human society will be moving faster than ever and it will be more faster in future than today. Will there be a point where society has moved to a place which the human brain cannot support anymore? In that day will the stress be the number one cause for human death? Or will that mark the extinguish of humans from the earth?

This imbalance of what human brain can produce compared to how the human society want to operate cause stress to the human brain. It is amazing to note that the society created by human brain is running faster and brain has to catch up thus causing stress to the brain. It is funny to see that human brain is the problem, it is the victim and it is solution as well.


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