Social media and many other facets of modern life are destroying our ability to concentrate. We need to reclaim our minds while we still can. The following passage is an extract from Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention by Johann Hari. It’s an important read.
“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.
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.
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.”
But none of these changes will happen unless we fight for them. Just as the feminist movement reclaimed women’s right to their own bodies (and still has to fight for it today), I believe we now need an attention movement to reclaim our minds. I believe we need to act urgently, because this may be like the climate crisis, or the obesity crisis – the longer we wait, the harder it will get.
The more our attention degrades, the harder it will be to summon the personal and political energy to take on the forces stealing our focus. The first step it requires is a shift in our consciousness. We need to stop blaming ourselves. We own our own minds and, together, we can take them back from the forces that are stealing them.”