Johann Hari cites multiple causes for the current attention crisis and offers practical solutions.
In this New York Times bestseller, Johann Hari – author of the acclaimed Chasing the Scream – details how, disturbed by a world lost in electronic devices and distracted from real life, he committed to a three-month wireless retreat. He fled to Provincetown, Massachusetts, minus an internet-enabled cellphone or laptop, to cure his social media addiction cold turkey. He offers revelations from that experience and startling research into contemporary struggles to focus.
Hari spotlights multiple research studies, case studies and insights from industry professionals to bolster his thoughtful solutions to society’s attention crisis. His overview of the data-soaked water you swim through daily – and its effects on your brain – will likely be eye-opening.
Hari posits that humanity is in the midst of an attention crisis. Information inundates people, diminishing their ability to sustain focus or comprehend the material bombarding them.
Writer James Baldwin…said: ‘Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.’ This crisis is human-made, and it can be unmade by us, too.Johann Hari
Hari cites a study that proves society’s collective focus started waning long before the internet age, but that the internet sharply accelerated its decline. When information overwhelms people, they strain to understand complex topics because the brain’s prefrontal cortex struggles to filter out irrelevant information.
Hari reports that the duration of people’s sleep has fallen by 20% over the past century. Sleep removes metabolic waste that clouds focus, and dreaming helps people process waking-life emotions. The most vivid dreams occur during the seventh or eighth hour of a sleep cycle, and fewer people sleep that long. Concentration problems often improve when you get sufficient sleep.
To improve the quality of your slumber, refrain from chemically inducing sleep, avoid looking at screens for at least two hours before bedtime, and limit your exposure to artificial light.
Hari advocates for letting the mind wander as an alternative way of regaining focus. Exploring new trains of thought, free from the distraction of electronic devices, can help you discover connections between what you see, read and hear, and your experiences. It can also foster creative problem-solving, says Hari. Moreover, daydreaming helps you to identify patterns and connections. When you mindlessly browse the internet, though, you neither focus nor allow your thoughts to drift.
Aza Raskin, the creator of the infinite scroll – a primary feature of, for example, Facebook, Google and Instagram – calculated that his invention wastes sufficient user time to equate to 200,000 human life spans every day.
The way our tech works now to corrode our attention was and remains a choice – by Silicon Valley, and by the wider society that lets them do it.Johann Hari
Addictive technology generates consumers who increasingly experience anger, fear and hate. When fake news travels six times faster on social media than real news does, people prove less equipped to tackle the world’s problems. Social media impedes individuals’ and society’s collective attention.
Big Tech wants users to accept the blame for their shortening attention spans. The tech industry claims that willpower, new habits and helpful apps will enable consumers to cut down their screen time. When those attempts fail, people won’t censure the system; they’ll blame themselves.
Diet and Pollutants
Hari recognizes that the tech industry isn’t the only factor depleting human attention; environmental components play a role, too, creating a perfect storm for focus destruction. For instance, a typical Western-style breakfast – a bowl of cereal and a slice of toast – contains little fiber and ample sugar. Consumers experience a sugar rush followed by a crash, which many people solve by eating more sugar. This cycle of blood sugar spikes and dips leaves individuals lacking energy and unable to focus. Instead, nourish your focus with fresh meat, fish, fruit and vegetables.
Additionally, pollutants – pesticides, flame-retardants, and so on – contribute to a loss of focus, and individuals are exposed to an increasing number of contaminants. The human brain can’t absorb the cornucopia of chemicals it encounters daily. Protracted exposure to air pollution damages the brain’s neurons.
Hari presents evidence suggesting that, for 70%–80% of sufferers, ADHD results from the patient’s environment rather than a biological disorder. Exposure to prolonged stress triggers anxiety, insomnia and ADHD. In such cases, ADHD medication targets the symptoms without tackling the root cause.
Children have needs – and it’s our job, as adults, to create an environment that meets those needs. Johann Hari
Hari cautions against overprescribing ADHD medications to children. Adderall and Ritalin are addictive stimulants similar to methamphetamine; they can stunt children’s growth and can cause heart problems. Doctors should unravel the environmental roots of inattention – for example, problems at home – and prescribe stimulants only as a last resort.
Hari calls for collective change to reverse the dangerous social trends he cites. He advocates a ban on the surveillance capitalism that lets Big Tech track and collect user data. Hari promotes a four-day workweek because people suffering chronic stress and exhaustion cannot focus. When companies reduced working hours without reducing pay, he notes, workers slept more, experienced less stress, took fewer sick days and were more productive.
Many children lack play, exercise, nutritious foods and learning that doesn’t bore them. Society must create conditions to support children’s health and well-being.
Hari has an ax to grind and a clarion call to raise. Thus he filters his insights through the lens of his thesis, which is pretty hard to argue with and, some might say, totally apparent. But Hari goes deeper, linking cause to effect, social media to endemic polarization and corporate greed to societal degradation. Happily, he writes with a poetic love of language that brings depth and grace to his powerful, heartfelt ideas.
Johann Hari also wrote Chasing the Scream and Lost Connections. Parallel works include The Loop by Jacob Ward and Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport.