Subtitle: Why you can't pay attention -- and How to think deeply again
Author: Johann Hari
How I found this book
I have personally come to the realization that my most scarce resource is not time, but attention. All of the time management books I could get my hands on weren't helping with the attention crisis we are all going through. Books on habit-forming like Atomic Habits are getting popular, but they shift the blame for the attention crisis to the individual, much like the carbon footprint narrative. Since I was subconsciously on the search for a fix for my attention problem, I was quickly attracted to this book. I discovered this book because of the author's appearance in an episode of the Upstream podcast.
The author claims to have interviewed 250 experts over the course of writing this book. I will mention the names of only a few of them in this summary. I have some strong reactions during the summary which I couldn't hold till the Review section.
The Attention Crisis
In the introduction, the author addresses the attention crisis facing everybody in our time. He has a personal anecdote about a trip he makes with his godson from the UK to the US to go to Graceland (home of the pop star Elvis Presley). Ten years pass between the time the author makes his promise and they actually make the trip. Graceland itself has changed meanwhile, with digital technology taking over the very experience. People go through the trip using an iPad app. The author is annoyed to find that people are more obsessed with the digital toy than with experiencing Elvis's house. Meanwhile, his godson can't get over his addiction to the four apps he keeps switching between.
The author starts interviewing leading authorities on various attention-related things over the course of a few years. Much like the climate crisis, he starts discovering that the attention crisis is getting worse over time and its worst effects were in the past few decades.
Roy Baumeister —the author of Will Power— remarked that his own attention is not as good as it used to be. He admits to playing Candy Crush Saga on his phone before going to bed.
I wondered if the motto for our era should be: I tried to live, but I got distracted.
There are three reasons why we need to focus on attention:
- A life full of distractions is a diminished life. We can't achieve much.
- The attention crisis is a crisis for the whole society. We can't solve problems.
- If we understand what's going on, we can begin work on undoing this human-made crisis.
The attention crisis is similar to the obesity crisis. It isn't a personal failing but a social epidemic. This is a systemic problem. Big Tech carries some of the blame for it, but not entirely.
The author identifies 12 systemic causes for our attention deprivation:
- The Increase in Speed, Switching, and Filtering
- The Crippling of Our Flow States
- The Rise of Physical and Mental Exhaustion
- The Collapse of Sustained Reading
- The Disruption of Mind-Wandering
- The Rise of Technology That Can Track and Manipulate You
- The Surge in Stress and How It Is Triggering Vigilance
- Our Deteriorating Diets
- Rising Pollution
- The Rise of ADHD and How We Are Responding to It
- The Confinement of Our Children, Both Physically and Psychologically
Digital detox phase
The author starts his journey with a digital detox, by going completely offline. It is worth mentioning at this point that the author is/was a journalist. He gets a laptop that can't go online, a loaded iPod, a feature phone and a watch. He compares himself to Ulysses tying himself to the ship's mast to avoid the sirens. He moves to a tiny town called Provincetown near Boston for a month. At this stage, the author still believes that this is an individual problem that he can find an individual solution for.
Though the author brought some books with him, he needs to chill a little bit before he can get any reading done, because his attention needs some time to recover from all the wreckage inflicted on it by Twitter and breaking news.
Twitter makes you feel that the whole world is obsessed with you and your little ego—it loves you, it hates you, it’s talking about you right now. The ocean makes you feel like the world is greeting you with a soft, wet, welcoming indifference. It’s never going to argue back, no matter how loud you yell.
The amount of information that the average person is exposed to is going up. It's like the equivalent of 174 newspapers now. Even the author, a journalist, found himself reading only about 3 newspapers a day when in Provincetown. We are sacrificing depth in this process. We are also constantly bombarded with easy distractions instead of focusing on the difficult things that are actually worth doing.
Everything's getting faster, not just the technology. We are literally walking 10% faster than before, at least in cities. We also learned the myth of multi-tasking —juggling too many tasks— with our single-minded brains from our exposure to computers which made our attention worse. Deliberately slowing down using practices like yoga or meditation, seems to improve our attention span. Multi-tasking drops your IQ level by 10 points. Being stoned is better than this because it only drops your IQ by half of that. Modern knowledge workers aren't getting a single hour of uninterrupted time per day.
Getting rid of distractions and mono-tasking seems to be the way forward, but how much individual control do we have over this systemic problem?
We can't just mono-task by force of will. We are all distracted by noisy open-plan offices and classrooms, crowded cities and an unhealthy addiction to sugar and stimulants.
Half-way through the digital detox program, the author starts missing his digital devices and their distractions. Instead of reading, he finds himself skimming through books like they're articles on the web. He realized that people around him are broadcasting themselves to each other instead of having a conversation. He wondered if social media increased narcissism in people. He then finds himself struggling to focus on reading his books.
if you have spent long enough being interrupted in your daily life, you will start to interrupt yourself even when you are set free from all these external interruptions.
Reinforcements vs. Flow
To get himself out of his misery, the author decides to interview Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the author of Flow. He was one of the early psychologists who focused on positive psychology instead of the mainstream focus on psychiatric disorders or manipulating people. B.F. Skinner, the most prominent psychologist of that time, popularized the concept of driving habit change through reinforcement which helped sociopathic Silicon Valley founders decades later to create addictive, attention-wrecking apps. Mihaly first discovered flow in his study of artists and then correlated it to his own childhood experiences. He found that people find that the process is reward itself, not the end result. True happiness is in the flow state.
There are three things to do to get into flow:
- Choose a clearly defined goal
- The task should be meaningful to you
- The task that you do should be at the edge of your abilities
Tasks that produce flow inherently require mono-tasking. They should be meaningful and test our abilities. Mihaly's brother Moricz was a self-taught geologist who could stare at a crystal for ten hours in his flow state.
“To have a good life, it is not enough to remove what is wrong with it,” Mihaly explained. “We also need a positive goal; otherwise why keep going?”
The way out of distraction is to find flow. In a flow state we forget ourselves, we lose track of time and have a sense of doing something bigger than ourselves. Removing our distractions is not enough. The purpose should be flow. The author started writing his novel to fill his undistracted time with a meaningful pursuit and to experience flow states.
When you are approaching death, I thought, you won’t think about your reinforcements—the likes and retweets—you’ll think about your moments of flow.
We can either fragment our attention over trivial reinforcing rewards or experience flow states. The former seems to be our society's default now. The latter is intentional and highly rewarding.
Sleep and Stimulants
When the author was a teenager he took caffeine to stay awake and melatonin gummies to fall asleep. He was always near exhaustion. He realizes that the had good sleep in Provincetown without any stimulants. He talks about some early research in the eighties which proved that being sleep-deprived is equivalent to being drunk when it comes to our ability to focus. It also wrecks memory and reaction speed.
our body is like, ‘Uh-oh, you’re depriving yourself of sleep, must be an emergency, so I’m going to make all these physiological changes to prepare yourself for that emergency. Raise your blood pressure. I’m going to make you want more fast food, I’m going to make you want more sugar for quick energy. I’m going to make your heart-rate [rise].’
The brain tries to consolidate the day's memories into long-term storage during sleep, which it is being deprived of. This leads to inability to recall things and serious attention problems in children. In the longer term, sleep deprivation can lead to dementia. The most intense REM sleep happens during the seventh or eight hour of our sleep. We need to sleep that long to have healthy brain function.
Chemically induced sleep knocks out certain neurotransmitters that sense melatonin levels which upsets their delicate balance with the other neurotransmitters. Hence sleeping pills are a stop-gap solution and not meant to be taken over the long term.
Artificial light has broken our adaptation to the cycles of the sun and moon. Our sleep times are being pushed to later and later in the night. In a consumer culture, being awake for longer means consuming for longer and probably consuming more. At an individual level, we can avoid the blue light of screens a couple of hours before bed and also keep the bedroom somewhat cold.
We need to slow down to have flow and sleep more for proper brain function. But the system seems to be pushing us in the opposite direction.
We live in a gap between what we know we should do and what we feel we can do.
Collapse of reading
The amount of linear reading people do in the form of books has come down in the past few decades. People are more used to skimming and skipping content on the web, and jumping to other content. Reading books is the most accessible form of flow for most people. As our attention degrades, we read fewer books and the attention degrades further.
With social media, just like with television, the medium becomes the message ("the medium is the message" - Marshall McLuhan). Social media favors shallow content which enables quick reactions. Books on the other hand, enable depth of understanding. Books are deep and nourishing, corporate social media sites are shallow and draining. Reading fiction books builds our empathy to understand the complex social lives of other people, whereas Twitter is optimized for quick judgement and rage.
Disruption of mind wandering
It is important to let our minder wander in order for it to make connections between things - which is the basis of creativity. It is also important for long-term thinking and clear goal setting.
Mind-wandering is a different kind of attention, different from the commonly known spotlight attention. We are jumping from one distraction to the next allowing for neither form of attention.
In situations of low stress and safety, mind-wandering will be a gift, a pleasure, a creative force. In situations of high stress or danger, mind-wandering will be a torment.
Back to normal life
The author comes back to normal life. He expects 35 hours of email, considering he spend an hour per day on email, but to his pleasant surprise, goes through it all in only two hours. He then theorizes that email breeds more email. He then proceeds to buy some quick fix solutions for his phone and laptop to keep the distractions away. However, he relapses into his old lifestyle and social media behaviors quickly. He realizes that the problem is beyond his individual capability to solve and proceeds to Silicon Valley to interview the two best apologists that the Valley has to offer for all of its misdeeds over decades.
The prodigal sons of Silicon Valley
At this point, the author decides to take a break from interviewing actual scientists and experts. He decides that the biggest surveillance capitalists of our time must have the solution to the problem they caused - fragmenting our attention and selling the attention fragments to advertisers. <sarcasm>Surely, someone who worked worked on such surveillance advertising tech at Google or Facebook must have the best answers. It's like being shot with a gun and going to the gun factory for a solution instead of going to a doctor.</sarcasm>
The author does several interviews with Tristan Harris, Silicon Valley's most popular prodigal tech bro and discovers that the dude did university courses in behavioral manipulation, all descended from B.F. Skinner. He is the "inventor" of pop-up previews which lets people spend more time on the same site without going away. He then goes to work at Google on GMail and finds that the app itself is wrecking their employees' attention, because of all the "engagement" features built into the app. Mindfulness apps are getting popular with Googlers. He makes a slide-deck for Google employees on how to be less attention-grabbing, gets lots of push back and then dropped into a made-up role called "design ethicist" at Google. It takes him a few well-paid years to realize that it's a bullshit job. So, he quits and finds another tech bro to join him - Aza Raskin, the inventor of infinite scroll.
The tech bros in Silicon Valley wouldn't let their own children use the products that they made. Well, neither do drug lords and cigarette manufacturers.
Tristan uses the metaphor of a voodoo doll to explain the digital doubles aka advertising profiles that these companies create for their users. The author also stumbles upon Prof. Shoshana Zuboff's book on surveillance capitalism, but doesn't read it. Instead, he does more interviews with the apologetic prodigal sons of the valley. <sarcasm> I am looking forward to this guy's book on the climate crisis so that I can read all the interesting interviews he does with Enron, BP and Shell execs, while ignoring the climate scientists. </sarcasm>
More than half the users on social media don't know that their new feeds are algorithmically sorted and filtered. It's hard to believe that the world isn't full of rage when your Twitter feed is full of rage and you don't know that Twitter is selectively showing you only those things that maximize your engagement on their site.
The 6 ways in which corporate social media apps are destroying our attention:
- they are designed to train our minds to crave frequent rewards
- they push us to switch tasks more frequently than we normally would
- they track and build profiles of you and present content accordingly
- they prioritize negative emotions like anger
- they make you feel like you are surrounded by other people's anger
- they set society on fire (deprivation of societal attention on major issues)
At this point, the author is back to interviewing actual experts. Big tech media sites isolate us as individuals due to their personalization algorithms and make it difficult for us to come together as a society. For example, we got the world to successfully ban CFCs because of their harm to the ozone layer in the time before social media. Now, the YouTube algorithm would prioritize videos that deny that the ozone layer even exists over the videos featuring scientists, making it much harder to draw societal attention to this issue. He then describes the story of how Jair Bolsonaro got elected in Brazil by intentionally spreading misinformation on Facebook.
We cannot make good decisions or solve problems as a society if Big Tech continues to keep us in a state of hypervigilance. We cannot solve major problems like the climate crisis when our attention is kidnapped by conspiracy theorists and the algorithms that prioritize their content.
The author meets yet another tech bro called Nir Eyal, who strongly believes that individual changes are the first line of defense against the assault by Big Tech's apps. He blames individuals for not messing with the default notifications on their smartphones. Yes, exactly like how BP put the blame for the climate crisis on individuals for not regulating their carbon footprint properly.
Nir Eyal is the author of "Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products" - a guide to Silicon Valley companies on how to get people addicted to their tech. The same guy then proceeds to write a book called "Indistractible" to help people make small tweaks to their life and overcome the effects of tech companies using the tactics outlined in his first book on them. After reading this, I opened the website of Tristan and Aza's "Center for Humane Technology" and found similar tweaks which do nothing to solve the problem. Their site suggests Signal as a replacement for Facebook! 🤦
The author correctly realizes at this point that this guy has a toxic attitude. He discovers that there's a term for this - "cruel optimism".
[Prof. Ronald Purser] introduced me to an idea I hadn’t heard before—a concept named “cruel optimism.” This is when you take a really big problem with deep causes in our culture—like obesity, or depression, or addiction—and you offer people, in upbeat language, a simplistic individual solution. It sounds optimistic, because you are telling them that the problem can be solved, and soon—but it is, in fact, cruel, because the solution you are offering is so limited, and so blind to the deeper causes, that for most people, it will fail.
^ This description applies very well to most TED talks.
The author gives the example of books written on stress which frame it as an individual problem with simple individualistic solutions like meditation which worked for the author of the book in their privileged position. It's a form of "victim blaming". The obesity epidemic offers another good example of how the industry recasts a systemic problem into an individual personality flaw.
This is one of the problems with cruel optimism—it takes exceptional cases, usually achieved in exceptional circumstances, and acts as if they can be commonplace.
The author then contemplates a complete ban on surveillance capitalism. He offers the banning of CFCs across the industry as a precedent for this. The prodigal sons claim that evil corporations like Facebook will turn benevolent overnight and work for your welfare after such a ban. Nir Eyal dismisses the idea. (Why is the author still talking to the tech bros?).
He finds hope in the fact that we have defeated bigger forces than the tech companies in the past, considering the social change brought about by feminists in the recent decades.
The chapters after this delve into medical disorders like ADHD and dementia. The author struggles with contradictions within and between medical experts and sociologists. The Surgeon General of California has a disproportionate influence on this part of the book.
Stress and Vigilance
Stress is a major factor influencing attention.
Content Warning: Collapsed content has mentions of violence and abuse. To read, click "Expand".
The author explores financial stress next. An experiment in Universal Basic Income (UBI) by the government of Finland in 2017 found that people's attention improved dramatically after reducing their money problems. The Internet grew in popularity in the decades of increasing economic inequality and a shrinking middle class. The author theorizes that financially stressed out people couldn't handle distractions well since their ability to focus was already weakened by stress.
There's also the fact that people are working more hours now than in the sixties in the western world. Companies that tried a 4-day workweek reported better outcomes for both the business and the employees. Some employees also got some me-time on that day since their spouse and children were not at home. The reduced stress also means fewer sick days taken.
The eight-hour workday and the weekend were achieved by general strikes organized by workers in the 18th and 19th centuries. The author believes that comparable measures are required for the 4-day workweek to become the norm.
The only long-term solution to this is to steadily rebuild unions—so people have the power to demand these basic rights.
The author observes how the pandemic and remote work put us all into permanent on-call duty and working increasing number of hours. The French government solved this problem through legislation levying heavy fines on employers who disturb their employees after work. It's called the "right to disconnect". This is real systemic change working in a situation where cruel optimism failed.
Deteriorating Diets and Rising Pollution
Modern diets are ruining our attention in 3 ways:
- they are rich in sugars which can cause sugar crashes unless sugar is consumed again
- most processed foods lose a lot of their natural nutrients which are important for brain development
- there are additives in food like food dyes which can make children hyperactive (already banned in Europe, but not in the USA)
In the US, cutting out school lunches and replacing them with vending machines and fast food restaurants is worsening the problem. Children are exposed to both harmful food additives and processed food. Some experts link processed food to ADHD in children.
There are different industrial chemicals that affect the development of the brain at various stages in our lives. Some can cause neuron damage and eventually dementia in the worst cases. The author draws hope from the fact that leaded gasoline was eventually banned in the USA. However, a lot of people today were children who grew up in that time and had ADHD due to breathing the lead in the air. A lot of victim blaming was done, especially in case of women of color.
The IQ of the average preschooler is estimated by scientists at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to have risen by five points as a result of the ban.
That still leaves pesticides, plasticizers, flame-retardants and cosmetics. There is no solution of "cruel optimism" in this case. The pollution is so thorough that even living in the countryside and growing your own organic food doesn't help you escape from the pollutants that disrupt endocrine function thus affecting early brain development. This reminds me of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. The industry and governments continue to ignore her since the 60s.
Two things can be done about chemical pollutants:
- New chemicals should go through safety checks just like drugs, instead of being considered harmless until proven dangerous
- For existing chemicals, research should be carried out by scientists not affiliated with the industry.
ADHD diagnosis in children is becoming common with children being put on powerful stimulant drugs like Ritalin. The number of children with ADHD is still going up. We accept that the problem of adult attention has many reasons but in case of children it's immediately concluded that the problem is biological and needs medical treatment. This is the most controversial chapter in the book because the experts contradict each other.
Nicholas Dodman, a veterinary doctor famous for prescribing human ADHD drugs to animals admitted that he is not addressing the underlying psychological problem but only assuaging the misery of the animals and their owners. He considers this to be better than the suffering (especially of animals living in factory farms where they never get to walk or run). This is most common in caged animals that develop a condition called "zoochosis".
Since the animals were being given biological solutions to what is essentially a problem in their environment, the author begins to suspect if this isn't the case with ADHD in human children. The author finds confirming evidence from Dr. Sami Timimi, a child psychiatrist in Britain who took the approach of diagnosing problems in the children's environment and trying to find the root cause. The author then meets Alan Stroufe, one of a group of scientists whose research focused on the why of ADHD. He says that the environment is the most important factor. Another factor is whether the children were soothed by their parents at an early age and thus developed the ability to soothe themselves in later life.
ADHD medication like Adderall and Ritalin seems to satisfy some of the same cravings that meth addicts have, which implies chemical similarities and both acting on the same neurotransmitters. Also, the fact that the drugs only work on ADHD children is a myth. Similar drugs were used by radar operators during World War II. They helped them stay focused on boring tasks. The drugs improve children's performance on repetitive tasks but don't improve learning.
The fact that the drug works isn’t evidence that you had an underlying biological problem all along—it’s just proof that you are taking a stimulant.
There is evidence of stunted growth in children, reduced sleep and risk of heart problems, but not all of the long-term effects are known yet. Children will develop tolerance and reach the maximum dosage at some point. Then this will start showing similarities to opioid epidemic.
Some doctors are worried that highlighting the environmental causes would cause hesitancy in parents about the drugs and cause needless suffering to children who really need the drugs. Some doctors believe that up to 80% of the cases are of biological i.e. genetic causes, which the author is skeptical about. This is illustrated mostly by case studies of twins developing ADHD together. These studies emphasize the genetic aspect but ignore the fact that the twins grew up in the same environment. Another scientist says that only 20 to 30% of ADHD cases are because of genes. What further complicates this is the fact that gene expression (whether genes get activated or stay dormant) is also controlled by environmental factors.
Confinement of Children
The last chapter of this book before the conclusion is all about how American parents have gotten overly protective of their children and took away their freedom to play freely and explore. Crime has actually been reduced since the sixties, but parents are more afraid now than before. Children almost get no independent time without adult supervision. Kids walking alone on the street get reported to the police as a case of parental negligence. (This is as much a culture shock to me, as it is to Lenore Skenazy whom the author is interviewing.)
The result of this is children have reduced exercise and reduced attention. If kids aren't making up their own games but playing only the sports that adults organized, it hurts their creativity and interpersonal skills like negotiation. The deprivation of these skills causes anxiety, which further degrades their ability to pay attention. Supervised play is like processed food.Children learn to focus by doing things for which they have intrinsic motivation. Most kids these days are spending their time on homework, screens and shopping with their parents.
The rest of this chapter is about experiments in allowing kids to play freely and this resulting in positive outcomes for their attention. Alternative schools like Sudbury Valley School, Evangelische Schule Berlin Zentrum and public schools in Finland are mentioned.
The author tries to avoid cruel optimism here by presenting a simple solution that will solve all of your attention problems.
He interviews James Williams, a former Google strategist, who defines attention to be of 3 types, all of which are at risk now:
- Spotlight - narrowing down your focus for an immediate task
- Starlight - focusing on long-term goals and overall direction
- Daylight - the form of focus that gives you a why for your long-term goals
losing your daylight is “the deepest form of distraction,” and you may even begin “decohering.”
The author wants to add a fourth form of focus Stadium lights - the ability to emphasize and work with each other. He then gets CoVID-19, recovers and then makes 6 changes to his life to get his attention back, which I won't mention here.
He envisions 3 big bold goals to deal with the attention crisis:
- ban surveillance capitalism
- introduce a 4-day work week
- rebuild childhood around letting kids play freely
Since the Industrial Revolution, economic growth became a major goal with our frazzled minds being the roadkill. The author is particularly worried about our distracted civilization's ability to focus on the greatest problem of our time - the climate crisis.
Reading this book made me realize that the people that a journalist chooses to interview will shape the whole narrative. The author should've talked to a wider range of experts before forming strong opinions. There are chapters where he talks to just one or two people and then hunts for confirming evidence. This is not a good approach. I still have to appreciate the author for interviewing the number of people that he did and not losing track of the topic of attention crisis.
It's clear that I'm not happy with his interviews of Silicon Valley's prodigal tech bros. The author could've found any of at least a 100 other people who would've given a better picture of surveillance capitalism, the alternatives and solutions. The author not reaching out to Prof. Shoshana Zuboff or folks at EFF including Cory Doctorow is a disappointment. I believe those two chapters could've gone much better if he had interviewed me instead of Tristan Harris. I could've then pointed him to better experts.
The first two parts of the ninth chapter of this book can be skipped, since it's just tech bros arguing with each other. The discussion belongs in HackerNews comments, not in a serious non-fiction book.
There was no need to define so many kinds of attention. Spotlight and Mind-Wandering seemed good enough to me.
I first learnt about confinement of children when I read articles Americans wrote about German parenting which felt like totally normal parenting to me. This over-protection and near imprisonment of children is strange. But giving freedom to children needs parental perception of societal safety. Individual or localized solutions won't get you far on this one.
The CoVID-19 pandemic induced in us a hypervigilant state of mind which wrecked our attention. Also, the lack of social interaction wasn't good for our mental health.
My advice would be to not look for solutions in this book, but proceed to reading the books Deep Work and Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport. What we need is not a bunch of self-help tips but a shift in mindset.
Overall, this book is worth reading. It has more information than a dozen documentary films put together.