My godson Adam was obsessed with Elvis when he was nine years old. He took to singing Jailhouse Rock at the top of his voice with all the low-pitched and crotch-jiggling of the King himself. He looked at me and asked if I would take him to Graceland. Without thinking, I agreed. Everything had gone wrong, so I never gave it another thought.
Adam was lost ten years later. When he was 15, he dropped out of school and spent most of his waking hours on screens. I have changed his name and some details to protect his privacy. He seemed to be at a loss for words, and nothing serious could get his attention. This fracturing seemed to be happening to many of us during the decade in which Adam had become a man. Our ability to pay attention was not good. I had just turned 40, and my generation lamented our lost concentration capacity. It felt more and more like running up an escalator as the year went on. I looked at him as we lay on my sofa and felt a low fear. I told Adam to go to Graceland. I reminded him of the promise I made. I told him there was one condition he had to stick to if we went, even though I could see that he was going to explode if we broke this numbing routine. During the day, he had to switch off his phone. He said he would.
There is no one who will show you around when you arrive at the gates of Graceland. The iPad tells you what to do when you put it in your ears. A photograph of where you are is displayed on the screen in each room. We were surrounded by blank-faced people looking at their screens as we walked around. I was more tense as we walked. When we got to the jungle room, the iPad was talking away, but a middle-aged man stood next to me and said something to his wife. In front of us, I could see the fake plants that Elvis had bought to turn this room into his own jungle. He said, "this is amazing." Look. He waved the iPad in her direction and moved his finger across it. You can see the jungle room if you swiped left. You can see the jungle room if you use the right finger.
If you read your texts while working, you lose time, but also time to focus, which is a lot.
His wife stared and began to use her iPad. I leaned back. I said there was an old-fashioned form of swiping you could do. It is called turning your head. We are here. We are in the jungle room. You can see that it is notmediated. Here. Look. The fake green leaves rustled a little when I waved my hand. Their eyes went back to their screens. Look! I said that. Do you not see? We are actually there. There is no need for a screen. We are in the jungle. They ran away. I was ready to laugh at it all, but Adam was in a corner, holding his phone under his jacket.
He had broken his promise at every stage. He took his phone out of his seat when the plane arrived in New Orleans. I said, "You promised not to use it." He said he wouldn't make phone calls. I can use both of those things. He said this with a confused expression, as if I had asked him to hold his breath for a few days. I tried to wrestle his phone away from him in the jungle room, but he stomped away. He was sitting next to a swimming pool in the hotel and looking sad. As I sat with him, I realized that my rage towards him was really towards myself. His inability to focus was something I felt was happening to me as well. I hated being present because I was losing my ability to be present. Adam held his phone in his hand and said he knew something was wrong. I don't know how to fix it. He went back to texting.
He is at his home in London. Antonio Olmos is the photographer.
I realized that I needed to understand what was happening to him. That moment changed how I think about attention. In the next three years, I traveled all over the world interviewing experts about focus. I learned that we are not facing a normal anxiety about attention that every generation goes through. There is a serious attention crisis that has huge implications for how we live. Many of the factors that have been shown to reduce people's ability to pay attention have been rising in the past few decades.
I went to Portland, Oregon, to interview Prof 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. He said that he would probably destroy people's attention if he were in charge of our culture. 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." The effects can be seen all around us. College students only focus on one task for 65 seconds, according to a small study. Office workers focus on average for three minutes. This is not happening because we all became weak- willed. Your focus didn't fall apart. It was taken.
I thought my attention was failing because I wasn't strong enough as an individual and because I had been taken over by my phone when I got back. I went into a spiral of negative thoughts. You are weak, lazy, and not disciplined enough. I thought the solution was to be more disciplined and not have a phone. I booked myself a room by the beach at the tip of Cape Cod. I told everyone that I was going to be there for three months, without a phone or computer. I'm done. I don't like being wired. I had money from my previous books, so I knew I could only do it. I knew it wouldn't be a long-term solution. I did it because I thought I might lose some of my ability to think deeply if I didn't. I hoped that if I stripped everything back for a while, I would be able to see the changes we could make in a more sustainable way.
In my first week of webless, I stumbled around. The town of Provincetown has the highest proportion of same-sex couples in the US. I ate cupcakes, read books, talked with strangers and sang songs. Everything slowed down. I usually follow the news every hour or so and try to get a sense of what's going on. I only read a newspaper once a day. I would feel a sensation inside of me that I had never experienced before and I would ask myself: what is that? Yes, yes. It's calm.
When I interviewed the experts and studied their research, I realized that there were many reasons why my attention was starting to heal from that first day. Prof Earl Miller is a neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He said that your brain can only produce one or two thoughts at a time. That is it. We are very, very single-minded. We have limited cognitive capacity. We have fallen for a big lie. The average teenager believes they can follow six forms of media at the same time. When they studied this, they found that people are juggling when they think they are doing several things at once. They are changing back and forth. They don't notice the switch because their brain sort of papers it over to give a seamless experience of consciousness, but what they're actually doing is switch and reconfiguring their brain moment-to-moment, task-to-task Imagine if you received a text while you were doing your tax return and you looked at it for a few seconds and then went back to your tax return. He said that when it goes from one task to another, your brain has to reconfigure. You have to remember what you did before, and you have to remember what you thought about it. The evidence shows that your performance goes down when this happens. You are slower. All as a result of the switch.
This is called the switch-cost effect. It means that if you check your texts while you are trying to work, you are also losing time in the process, which is a huge amount. 136 students were taken to the human computer interaction lab at Carnegie Mellon University and given a test to take. Some of them had to have their phones switched off and others had their phones on and received intermittent text messages. The students who received messages were 20% worse. Almost all of us are losing 20% of our brainpower almost all the time. Miller said that we now live in a perfect storm of cognitive degradation.
I was doing one thing at a time in Provincetown for the first time in a long time. I was living in the limits of what my brain could handle. I felt my attention was growing and improving, but then one day, I had an abrupt setback. I was walking down the beach and every few steps I saw the same thing that had been bothering me since Memphis. People were taking selfies at the ocean or each other, but they were not looking up. This time, the itch I felt wasn't to yell: You're wasting your lives, put the phone down. It was to say: Give me that phone! It's mine! I had been receiving signals of likes and comments from the web for a long time. You matter. They were gone now. Simone de Beauvoir said that when she became an unbeliever it felt like the world had stopped talking. Losing the internet felt like that. Ordinary social interactions seemed to be low volume after the rhetorical heat of social media. You don't have a normal social interaction.
There is a place to switch off. The image is from the seditious images of Maddie Meyer.
To heal my attention, I needed more than just removing distraction. It makes you feel good, but then it creates a vacuum where all the noise was. I had to fill the vacuum. I started to think about the science of flow states when I was trying to do that. Most of the people reading this will have experienced a flow state at some point. When you are doing something meaningful to you, and you really get into it, and time falls away, and your ego disappears, you find yourself focusing deeply and easily. Flow is the most focused form of attention a human can offer. How do we get there?
Prof Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was the first scientist to study flow states and researched them for more than 40 years. I learned from his research that there are three key factors that you need to get into flow. You have to choose one goal. Flow takes all your mental energy and deploys it in one direction. Second, that goal needs to be meaningful to you, and you can't flow into a goal that you don't care about. If the rock you are climbing is a bit higher and harder than the last rock you climbed, it helps. I started to write a different kind of writing that stretched me. Within a few days, I started to flow, and hours of focus would pass without it feeling like a challenge. I felt like I was concentrating in the way I did when I was a teenager. I had feared that my brain was malfunctioning. I cried with relief when I realized that it could come back.
I would sit on the beach at the end of the day and watch the light change. The light on the cape is unlike any other light I have ever seen, and I could see my own thoughts, my own goals, and my own dreams more clearly than I had before. I was in the light. I was convinced I had cracked the code of attention when I came back to the hyperlinked world after leaving the beach house. I returned to the world with a determination to integrate the lessons I had learned. When I got my phone and laptop back after taking a ferry back to Boston, they seemed strange. Within a few months, my screen time was back to four hours a day, and my attention was starting to break.
James Williams, the former engineer of the internet giant, told me that I had made a crucial mistake. The same reason that wearing a gas mask for two days a week outside isn't the answer to pollution is that individual abstinence is not the solution. For a short time, it might keep certain effects at bay, but it isn't sustainable and doesn't address the systemic issues. He said that our attention is being altered by huge invaders. He said that the solution was to just adjust your own habits and that it was just pushing it back on to the individual.
If we compare our rising attention problems to our rising obesity rates, it might help me understand what is happening. Fifty years ago, there was very little overweight in the western world. This isn't because we suddenly became greedy. He said that there is a social epidemic of overweight people. People are getting fat because we have bad food. The way we live has changed dramatically, our food supply has changed, and we have built cities that are hard to walk or cycle around, and those changes in our environment have led to changes in our bodies. We gained mass. He said that something similar might be happening with the changes in our attention.
I learned that there are factors that affect our attention that are not obvious. The causes range from the food we eat to the air we breathe, from the hours we work to the hours we don't sleep, and so on. We have come to take for granted many things, from how we deprive our children of play, to how our schools strip learning of meaning by basing everything on tests. I believe we need to respond to this invasion of our attention at two levels. Individual is the first thing. Changes we make at a personal level will protect our focus. I think I have boosted my focus by 20% by doing most of them. We need to level with people. The changes will only take you so far. The people pouring the powder are saying that you might want to learn to meditate. You wouldn't scratch so much. We need to stop the people who are pouring itching powder on us from using meditation. We need to band together to take on the forces that are stealing our attention.
Eric Chow drew the illustration.
This can sound abstract, but I met people who were putting it into practice. There is strong scientific evidence that stress and exhaustion ruin your attention. More than a third of workers feel they can't switch off their phones because their boss might email them. Ordinary workers in France decided that this was intolerable and pressured their government for change, so now they have a legal right toDisconnect. It is simple. You have a right to not be contacted by your employer when you aren't working, and you have a right to defined work hours. Huge fines are given to companies that break the rules. Collective changes like this can restore some of our focus. We could force social media companies to abandon their current business model, which is designed to keep us scrolling, in order to get them to change. There are other ways in which these sites could work.
Some scientists say that the worry about attention is similar to the worry about comic books or rap music, and that the evidence is shaky. The evidence is strong and the scientists say that these fears are similar to the warnings about the climate crisis in the 1970s. I think we can't wait for perfect evidence because of the uncertainty. We have to act based on the risk assessment. If the people warning about the effects turn out to be wrong, what will be the cost? We will spend less time being harassed by our bosses, and we will be tracked and manipulated less by technology, along with lots of other improvements in our lives that are desirable in any case. If they are right, and we don't do what they say, what is the cost? We will have a situation in which we will have to strip ourselves of our attention at the very time when we face crises that require it more than ever.
We have to fight for these changes to happen. We need an attention movement to regain our minds, just as the feminist movement reclaimed women's right to their own bodies. I think we need to act quickly because we may be in a similar situation to the climate crisis or the obese crisis. It will be harder to summon the personal and political energy to take on the forces stealing our focus if our attention degrades. A shift in consciousness is the first step. We need to stop blaming ourselves and instead demand small changes from our employers and tech companies. We can take back our minds from the forces that are stealing them.
An edited extract from Stolen Focus: Why You Can't Pay attention was published on January 6. Order your copy at guardianbookshop.com to support the Guardian and Observer. Delivery charges may apply.