Johann Hari’s latest book, Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention–and How to Think Deeply Again, explains how our attention is being continuously degraded. Hari identifies 12 causes, only two of which relate to technology. He found our inability to focus is not a personal failure. We can reclaim it – as individuals and a society – if we are determined to fight for it. We can do this.
Many years ago, we had lead in our house paint and lead in our gasoline. Scientists showed us that absorbing lead into our bodies seriously damaged our brains, especially those of our children. People got together and insisted that lead be removed from paint and gasoline. Now we no longer have that threat to our brains.
The first cause stealing our lives is Switching, Switching, Switching.
Most of us know about the “fight or flight response” hard-wired into our brains. But we also have something called the “approach-avoid response”. This response has a dramatic effect on our perception and problem-solving responses. When disturbed, it changes our decision-making, stress management, collaboration and motivation choices.
Because our brains evolved to keep us safe, we have a hair-trigger response to anything our subconscious perceives as a threat. We instinctively pay much more attention to a threat than anything positive that may be happening at the same time.
One big threat to our brains is our constant attempts to multitask. Computers came into our world about 60 years ago. The term multitasking was first applied to these amazing machines. They appeared to be able to run several programs simultaneously with no loss of fidelity.
The human brain is vastly more creative than computers, but we never could multitask. We can appear to multitask, but each time we switch our attention from one to another task, we need to re-focus, backtrack and correct errors. This causes a 10-point drop in our IQ – the same as we would have if we were stoned on cannabis.
Recent research shows that switching, switching, switching as we now do all day has a huge cost. The average office worker is interrupted about every 3 minutes. The average North American spends 40% of their work time “multitasking” and spends over 3 hours per day on their cell phones. They touch their cell phones an average of 2,617 times every 24 hours.
Most office workers never have an uninterrupted hour at work. We are constantly exhausting our attention resources.
If you want to know how much this affects you, please use this form to track the frequency of your current interruptions. Then choose one to reduce.
We can make individual changes but this is a systemic problem that needs many of us to insist on the changes needed. Together, we can make these seductive interruptions stop. Currently, our brains and those of our children are being seriously damaged by these 12 different causes.
Today’s situation, thoroughly researched by Johann Hari, is vastly more dangerous to our brains than lead.
When our attention constantly switches, our problem-solving ability degrades, and our creativity crashes. We have problems in our own lives, and we have big problems in the world. A distracted life is a diminished life.
Everyone’s fractured attention is leaving the world with very serious unsolved problems:
“Not everything that is faced can be changed but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” – James Baldwin