Thursday, May 19, 2022

Stolen Focus--you need to focus before it is too late

A concern more of us are waking up to is our lack of focus, of not being able pay attention.  It is not just for individuals, but all of society.  When we need clarity in our thinking we are distracted and confused.  The process seems to have accelerated and we may be headed to a disaster, but there are some insights that might save us.

At first it is easy to blame social media,  Many examples are provided, but the bottom line is that social media companies are profit oriented and the way they profit is through engagement.  Every time you push a link the information is collected to compile a profile on you.  From there, algorithms are developed that steer you to either an advertisement or just as likely more posts that are designed to keep you engaged and exposed to more targeted ads.  Another feature is the infinite scroll which encourages you to stay on board just a little bit longer. 

Another associated concern is multi tasking which social media enables.  As I write this I am also watching a movie on a streaming service.  I used to think I could pay full attention to two or more activities, but the brain was not designed that way.  Probably some of you are multi tasking as you try to figure out how much to pay attention to my words.  Some people are more adept at switching interests back and forth and retaining some value, but science has proved that the mere act of switching guarantees you lose something.  This problem is exacerbated with the multitude of electronic devices.  Distracted driving is an increasing cause of death.

But the problem goes much deeper.  

A lack of sleep slows down reactions, impairs memory and can even raise blood pressure.  Sleep is when your body cleans out toxins.  REM (rapid eye movement) sleep is when your body dreams and sorts out the events of the day.  It occurs towards the end of 7 or 8 hours.  We evolved with the natural cycle of sun and dark, but now artificial light extends our day and disrupts our sleep, further diminishing our focus.  Lack of sleep has many causes:  busyness, stress, light and noise are a few factors.

What you eat and drink affects your ability to concentrate.  We have changed our eating habits very dramatically since our cave days.  In a busy world we eat prepared foods that use preservatives to make for more economical storage.  Supplements we take are not as good as fresh nutrients. We eat a lot of sugar that causes a spike in energy, but crashes.  Caffeine amplifies the effect of sugar making our moods unsteady.  The brain needs a steady supply of fuel provided by what we eat. 

Pollution puts more unhealthy chemicals into our bodies.  What comes out of factories spreads through the air that we breathe.  Chemicals are constantly being added through pesticides, cosmetics, fire retardants and are not always tested adequately.  The level of inspections is subject to political budgets.  All this adds to the body's inability to concentrate

When people of my age were young we played out in the streets without any supervision.  In the past few decades parents have overemphasized the dangers and most youngsters today are heavily involved with supervised activities and/or spend hours every week in front of screens.  It has been found that free play time actually reduces anxiety and promotes social skills.  Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist noted that increasing anxiety is partly the result of play deprivation has a profound effect on many

Jonathon offers some solutions, but feels an individual is limited in dealing with the problem.

There are technical aids to limiting screen time and of course taking responsibility to limit your time.  You can refrain from screen viewing before going to bed.  You can monitor your diet to avoid empty nutrition. 

Mihaly Csiksentmihalyi devoted most of his science career studying what he termed "flow."  That is activities are absorbing because they are enjoyable and meaningful.  These could be any effort, either physical or mental.  One example that has greatly diminished is reading.  Actually reading a book as opposed to reading online lends itself better to flow.  Reading fiction helps develop empathy.  The author says "...when you widen human empathy, you open the universe a little more."

But the real problem is systemic.  Stress is manufactured by our lifestyle.  It may seem hopeless, but many issues have improved after enough people became aware of a problem and exerted pressure on governments.  Some examples are banning lead in paint and in gasoline, seat belts and alcohol testing on drivers.  In Mexico they raised taxes on some sugary products that helped curb obesity and diabetes.

Online surveillance can be stopped completely which may necessitates new models for some social media providers such as more reliance on subscriptions.  Infinite scrolling can be modified so that a viewer has the option of whether or not to go to the next page.  In France they have stopped emailing employees in specified hours so they can relax.

Stress is unavoidable no matter what system we find ourselves in.  Our present standard  of living owes a lot to economic growth, however the author claims economic growth is a major cause of stress and unless checked will increase to the point of disaster.  Dr Jason Hickel  advocates a "steady-state economy." Instead of working to buy more goods that we don't need, time to enjoy nature, our families.  With a four day work week we ought to be able to sustain ourselves and have security.

Al Gore realized that before we could fix climate change we would have to fix democracy.  Johann Hari is pointing out that before we can fix much of anything we need to fix this attention crisis.

W.H. Auden after looking over technologies of destruction warned, "We must love one another or die."

 I cannot pretend to have done justice to all the thinking in this book.  To do so you should read it for more depth.  You can keep up to date with changes at  From there you can get on a mailing list.

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