Johann Hari's "Stolen Focus"
Updated: Aug 26
Most of us have had the experience of reaching for our phones to do some task only to look up twenty minutes later having forgotten the original reason for picking up our device (my friend calls this "squirrel brain"). As a teacher, I long ago became hyper-aware of the level of attentiveness and engagement in my students. I won't pretend that wandering attention among kids in school is a new phenomenon, but I've noticed some behaviors in the last few years indicating that students' attention is being hijacked in ways that would be hard to imagine a generation ago. This isn't confined to kids or teens– it's common now for adults to joke about their "ADD" or mention their inability to focus like they used to be able to.
I recently listened to a podcast interview with author Johann Hari. Hari has been investigating our eroding ability to focus and his book, Stolen Focus, starts where I thought it might (our changing relationships to our devices) but branches into topics ranging from sleep hygiene to pollution. The book was at turns fascinating and discouraging as multiple experts on attention admitted to their own declining ability to focus. Below are a few facts that surprised me:
A study of American college students found that the median amount of time spent focused on one task was 19 seconds.
Almost 60% of Americans do not read a single book in a typical year.
40% of Americans are sleep-deprived.
Children who have experienced four or more adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) were found to be over 30 times more likely to be diagnosed with attention or behavior disorders.
I am relatively well-versed in the relentless efforts of tech companies to hijack our attention, so I found Hari's writing on this to be interesting but not surprising. His sections on the false promise of multi-tasking and the impact of stress on attention were newer to me. While we may think that we can focus on several things at once, that isn't actually how our brains work. In fact, the "switch cost effect" has been well-documented. Researchers found that study participants demonstrated performance deficits commensurate with a ten-point drop in IQ when being regularly distracted from a task by common intrusions (that's comparable to the IQ hit incurred by being high on cannabis). It can take significant time to regain focus after a disruption– whatever focus we might have is crushed within minutes of being in a typical modern work environment, never to be recaptured.
I was surprised that when asked, most people cited stress (not their phones) as a root cause of their inability to maintain attention. The link between ACEs and attention disorders in children is well-established. There is evidence that inability to focus is increasingly a class issue, with the affluent having the resources to resist the assault on their attention while the socioeconomically disadvantaged stand little chance.
The chapter on sleep's connection to attention resonated with me especially, as I am increasingly surrounded by exhausted teenagers. I learned that sleep deprivation in children not only results in an inability to focus, but also commonly manifests in hyperactivity. Our bodies are built to deal with periods of sleep deprivation but our brains interpret this condition as a state of emergency, ramping up heart rate, stress hormones, and appetite for fast-acting carbohydrates. Attention also suffers: 18 hours without sleep leads to reaction speeds similar to someone with a 0.05 blood alcohol content. The effects of insufficient sleep are cumulative and teenagers are especially susceptible since they require more sleep than adults.
Hari interviewed over 250 experts for this book and he is transparent about where the research is conflicted and where it is more unanimous. This is not a self-help book; Hari describes ways that we can individually work to improve our attention but warns that this may be a losing battle absent collective action to regulate the current strain of surveillance capitalism that profits from capturing our attention. Beyond our own mental health and productivity, Hari points out that our capacity to sustain attention long enough to understand complex problems and consider solutions is a cornerstone of a functioning democracy. With our capacity for sustained attention clearly imperiled, we need to respect the fragility of our focus and protect it as best we can.