Read: April 2023

Inspiration: Heard through a podcast; intrigued by the topic of how phones/screens have changed people’s brains/behavior


Written with the help of ChatGPT, below is a brief summary to understand what is covered in the book.

“Stolen Focus”, published in 2023 by author and journalist Johann Hari, explores why our attention spans have been deteriorating for decades, and how deliberate technological innovations and systemic capitalist incentives drive a continued acceleration of this deterioration. Hari contends that you are the the problem, as he describes the external forces working against the human capacity to maintain focus for extended periods of time. Importantly, Hari describes strategies and techniques to take back control of your attention and raises thoughtful points for consideration on the future of technology and civilization. Overall, “Stolen Focus” offers a thought-provoking view on the battle for your attention and the technology, corporations, and governments that will shape the future of humanity’s ability to focus.

Unedited Notes

Direct from my original book log, below are my unedited notes (abbreviations and misspellings included) to show how I take notes as I read.

Attention spans seems to be shrinking with technology and prominence of screens, author went for 3 months experience with no online access/screens, realized news consumption via twitter/real time promotes panic vs newspaper reading (once daily) promotes perspective, fuels cycle of inattention, most do not focus on single tasks for more than 3 mins without distraction and less than half of people have 1 hour distraction free in a day, studies shown time to peak popularity faster and fall from relevance faster (e.g., time a topic spends trend on twitter down 5 hours over 8 year span), accelerating shrinkage in attention, “multitasking” is a term from computer tech and not real for humans—what we think of as multitasking always involves switching and a lag to refocus and switch (human brain really not structured to multitask as would like to believe), flow state is accessed through monotasking—most complete state of attention in psychology, sleep science has shown that in terms of reaction time you are equivalent to being legally drunk if on 3 hours of sleep or 2 nights of 4-5 hrs, sleep is a period of brain repair as brain no longer needs to direct energy to awake awareness/attention, historically humans not control light so sunset trigger energy to prepare for nightfall (e.g., build tent) but now have light just before sleep so triggering energy rush hours later than ancestors, reading a book is linear focus vs reading screen is manic and skim/jump—creates attention challenges, surveys show >50% of american adults don’t finish a full book in a given year, mind wandering is very important for creativity/making sense of the world, make connections, wandering is a necessary form of attention, traditionally think of attention as spotlight (focused narrowly) but miss bigger connections/lose productivity if never take step back to wander, tech business model is about screen time/attention and prolonging—time looking away takes away from $, tools to increase human interaction face to face mean less $ and less data collection, it is by deliberate design and choice to distract—could have made other choices, maximizing scroll time, if its more enraging then it is more engaging, YouTube for example has attention maximizing algo which in turn recommends increasingly extremes videos on topic you search (e.g., rec Alex Jones 15bn times), same with Facebook algo circulating falsehood news that grabs attention—help Bolsonaro election in Brazil, cruel optimism=when take a big problem with deep causes in culture and offer simplistic solution but really is blind to deeper cause (e.g. stressed? just meditate and change mindset—lots else involved culturally besides this), 2 ways to change surveillance capitalism—make subscription based FB/Insta so not ad/attention driven or make gvt/public ownership like BBC since social is a public utility and then can change purpose/function of the site to more productivity, otherwise can’t shift economic incentives, diet has contributed to attention shifts—bad habits pushed by billion dollar marketing initiatives (not good for the brain) and made most easily available, cruel optimism to tell people just to eat better given costs, ADHD rise attributable to these systemic factors that further deteriorate brain, ADHD frequently chalked up to “genetics” and prescribed stimulants but need to consider the fact that was never so prevalent until recent decades, ADHD issues originally studied via animals developing compulsive habits and tamed via drugs (determined to be driven by “domestication” as removed from natural environment), most signficant longitudinal ADHD studies show no neurological marker at birth that predicts but rather environmental factors drive inability to focus (e.g. raised in high stress parental situations), stimulants are a band aid despite the fact they work quickly (unclear LT impacts), often hear ADHD is 75-80% caused by genes but this is all via twin studies—looking at identical and non-identical twins—and not via genome studies, scientists concede shortcomings of twin studies is missing real environmental factors even for identical twins which these studies cannot untangle, also ought to consider pollutants in the air that impact brain development—ADHD cases rise more in urban areas, many studied now also highlight the confined nature of modern childhood—decades ago would go out freely and roam/play without supervision and can learn/socialize/make games but now all very supervised and structured by parents, some schools have no recess, all limits those social skills and creativity from freeness of movement as a child, essentially is a way to find what interests you as a child—wander and explore and aids attention as seek for self what to focus on, Finland had notoriously successful schooling and low attention disorder rates—schools emphasize 15 mins of play for every 45 of instruction, no school til 7 years old and minimize homework/hrs in early years, enable more exploration of instrinsic motivation and interests vs hyper-structured environment, COVID was a shock to the system that supercharged environment already moving towards on screens—corroded attention much quicker than was trending without covid, important changes would be ban surveillance capitalism, four day work week, more freedom for children to play, economic growth is driver of world but growth can be via new inventions/markets or via cramming more consumption into existing frameworks—latter is today’s world, relies on sleep deprivation and multitasking to monetize (e.g., watch TV and scroll on phone)

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