Your attention didn’t whither away. It was stolen

Your attention didn’t whither away. It was stolen

Johann Hari writes:

I went to Portland, Oregon, to interview Prof Joel Nigg, who is one of the leading experts in the world on children’s attention problems, and he told me we need to ask if we are now developing “an attentional pathogenic culture” – an environment in which sustained and deep focus is harder for all of us. When I asked him what he would do if he was in charge of our culture and he actually wanted to destroy people’s attention, he said: “Probably what our society is doing.” Prof Barbara Demeneix, a leading French scientist who has studied some key factors that can disrupt attention, told me bluntly: “There is no way we can have a normal brain today.” We can see the effects all around us. A small study of college students found they now only focus on any one task for 65 seconds. A different study of office workers found they only focus on average for three minutes. This isn’t happening because we all individually became weak-willed. Your focus didn’t collapse. It was stolen.

When I first got back from Graceland, I thought my attention was failing because I wasn’t strong enough as an individual and because I had been taken over by my phone. I went into a spiral of negative thoughts, reproaching myself. I’d say – you’re weak, you’re lazy, you’re not disciplined enough. I thought the solution was obvious: be more disciplined, and banish your phone. So I went online and booked myself a little room by the beach in Provincetown, at the tip of Cape Cod. I announced triumphantly to everyone – I am going to be there for three months, with no smartphone, and no computer that can get online. I’m done. I’m tired of being wired. I knew I could only do it because I was very lucky and had money from my previous books. I knew it couldn’t be a long-term solution. I did it because I thought that if I didn’t, I might lose some crucial aspects of my ability to think deeply. I also hoped that if I stripped everything back for a time, I might start to be able to glimpse the changes we could all make in a more sustainable way.

In my first webless week, I stumbled around in a haze of decompression. Provincetown is a little gay resort town with the highest proportion of same-sex couples in the US. I ate cupcakes, read books, talked with strangers and sang songs. Everything radically slowed down. Normally I follow the news every hour or so, getting a drip-feed of anxiety-provoking facts and trying to smush them together into some kind of sense. Instead, I simply read a physical newspaper once a day. Every few hours, I would feel an unfamiliar sensation gurgling inside me and I would ask myself: what is that? Ah, yes. Calm.

Later, I realised when I interviewed the experts and studied their research that there were many reasons why my attention was starting to heal from that first day. Prof Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, explained one to me. He said “your brain can only produce one or two thoughts” in your conscious mind at once. That’s it. “We’re very, very single-minded.” We have “very limited cognitive capacity”. But we have fallen for an enormous delusion. The average teenager now believes they can follow six forms of media at the same time. When neuroscientists studied this, they found that when people believe they are doing several things at once, they are actually juggling. “They’re switching back and forth. They don’t notice the switching because their brain sort of papers it over to give a seamless experience of consciousness, but what they’re actually doing is switching and reconfiguring their brain moment-to-moment, task-to-task – [and] that comes with a cost.” Imagine, say, you are doing your tax return, and you receive a text, and you look at it – it’s only a glance, taking three seconds – and then you go back to your tax return. In that moment, “your brain has to reconfigure, when it goes from one task to another”, he said. You have to remember what you were doing before, and you have to remember what you thought about it. When this happens, the evidence shows that “your performance drops. You’re slower. All as a result of the switching.” [Continue reading…]

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