We are fruit flies

by Dave Williams

It’s Saturday morning, my favorite time of the week.

I slept well and longer than usual. I’m drinking coffee and enjoying a North Texas spring rain with Amelia.

Amelia, snoozing on my footstool, her toy is her pillow.

Saturday morning is luxurious because it allows me guilt-free time for my mind to wander. This morning it has wandered to short attention spans. I’m not sure why, probably because I was reading people’s kneejerk reactions to mere headlines of slanted news articles posted on Facebook, but  it’s Saturday morning. Let’s not go there.

I just start thinking about stuff.

By now we’ve all heard that the memory of a goldfish lasts just three seconds.

Turns out that’s a myth. It is  fun to think about a goldfish looking at me through the glass, taking one quick trip around the bowl and upon seeing me again wondering, “Who’s that?” It’s just not true, apparently, though I don’t know that anyone hasn’t researched it but wouldn’t be surprised if someone has.

I don’t know why my mind wandered to that this morning but further cogitation led me to this gem of serious scientific research: The Attention Span of a Fly, by Bruno van Swinderen, Associate Professor at the University of Queensland Brain Institute.

In his abstract summary (abstract is his scientific word, not my snarky comment) he explains:

In the brain recording preparation, local field potential (LFP) activity in the 20–30 Hz range was found to be transiently associated with novel images and suppressed for competing, non-novel images.*

I don’t know about you but when I read that I throw in my cards and admit that this man’s brain spins at a much higher frequency than mine. But I still wanted to know the results of the study, so I poured another cup of Joe and dug in. Here’s what I managed to decipher:

A wild fruit fly can remember an image for nine to twelve seconds.

Fruit flies dream like we do. And they sleep eight hours. Think about that!

Ponder that for a moment, not the finding as much as the fact that there are people who want so badly to know this sort of arcane and arguably useless information that they will dedicate their lives to its exploration.

(And no, I didn’t realize there is such a thing as a domestic fruit fly, as implied. Let’s not go there just yet. Maybe in a future post.)

I’m not making fun of Professor van Swinderen, far from it.

Bruno, not the coke bottle glasses old science geek you expected, is he? Twitter photo.

With just a little more digging I learned that he’s a highly respected authority on human brain function and it turns out that understanding the human brain requires some experimentation with fruit flies. (Wild ones, at least.)

At the end of it all I’ve learned a factoid but I also discovered Professor van Swinderen, a fascinating man doing interesting and important work in ways I would never have imagined.

Yes, my brain goes in wildly unexpected places when unshackled from its daily requirements. It’s what makes Saturday mornings and my occasional writing sabbaticals so rewarding.

Now, for the snarky comment:

Nearly nobody will read this blog, much less consider for themselves the attention span of a goldfish or a fruit fly. Nor will most people consider the importance of this sort of research. Based upon a headline they’ll label Professor van Swinderen a loon.

Most of us construct our serious thinking these days from social media, blasts of ill-constructed pre-determined opinions posing as fact. We don’t bother to read, think for ourselves nor spend five minutes investigating truth by looking for the bigger picture. We just don’t have the time.

We carry all the recorded information in all of human history in our pockets. Think of that! — It’s mindblowing, but we don’t take time to appreciate it nor to be fascinated by our own amazing minds nor allow ourselves time to just think.

We’ve got other stuff to do.

When you come right down to it we’re fruit flies, by choice.

–May 16, 2020


*Bruno van Swinderen (2007) The Attention Span of a Fly, Fly, 1:3, 187-189, DOI: 10.4161/fly.4561


Bruno featured podcast, A Grey Matter: https://qbi.uq.edu.au/podcast-general-anaesthetics-and-consciousness