Friends have asked me a question about attention span in different cultures, and what psychology has to say on that. Rather than the quick anwer – I’m not sure – here’s a bit more.
Attention span is a tricky thing to talk about because there isn’t a clear psychological category for it. Instead, there are a few mental capacities that to my mind map onto it:
- Working memory. This is, more or less, the amount of information you can hold and act on in your mind at a given time. Hearing and then dialling a phone number, or performing a task where words are flashed up and every so often you are asked to repeat the one you saw two places before. This is what psychologists are likely to refer to when they refer to a person’s ‘span’, but doesn’t feel like it covers the folk sense of the term. However, it is implicated in another function:
- Resisting attentional capture: the degree to which you can control where your focus sits at any given time. Narrowly defined, this looks at situations like can you keep focus on your reading task as colours periodically flash to the sides of the text, or, more ecologically, can you focus on your revision when cars are honking outside. Working memory and other executive aspects of the brain (involved in planning and coordination) are important here. Loosely, we could see this as distraction. But this doesn’t quite do it, either, because ‘attention span’ seems to involve
- Avoiding boredom and drifting entirely away from an area of intended focus. Rapid disengagement with activities, which is seen in certain groups such as people with ADHD. Clearly some of this is attributable to attentional capture, as constant disruption of an activity makes it difficult to enter a flow state with it and gather that feedback. But it may not be the whole story. Unfortunately I don’t know this area at all well and don’t even know what the cognitive function would be that points to this.
As to what is known about how culture interacts with these capabilities, I don’t know. I do know that it is very hard to measure things, due to non-culture fairness of many tests available in the west, and due to the very nature of test-taking privileging abstraction over other forms of thinking. Some progress may be being made, see Cross-cultural cognition: Developing tests for developing countries
My total guesses would be that – to invent a generic premodern population for convenience – these people would be decent at avoiding attentional capture under normal conditions (environmental sounds not relevant to their aim, eg hunting a specific species), that fundamental working memory is likely fairly invariant as it probably underpins components of language processing, but that some of its manifestations (dealing with lists) would be impaired, and that disengagement from task would probably be typical for familiar and pertinent tasks. But these are just guesses, really. Any thoughts appreciated from other folk.