How does it feel inside your head? Turn your attention inwards. Maybe you’re daydreaming, allowing your mind to wander. Or maybe it feels sharp and alert. Maybe your thoughts are forging freely ahead, a sign that you have achieved the fabled state of “flow”. More likely, however, your brain feels like a browser with too many tabs open. From the widespread reports of a post-pandemic “brain fog” and the books on “deep work” and “stolen focus” topping bestseller lists, to the soaring diagnoses of ADHD in adults and children, it seems we are increasingly concerned by our ability to pay attention.
Early last year, the Centre for Attention Studies at King’s College London found that 49% of 2,000 adults surveyed felt their attention span was shorter than it used to be. Almost as many (47%) agreed that “‘deep thinking’ has become a thing of the past”. These are generalisations and impossible to quantify – we have no consistent measure of attention or deep thinking, let alone of contrasting those through history with today’s. But the response proves that we at least perceive there’s a problem.
I have been feeling the same myself. Last year, writing – my job for more than a decade – started to feel more laborious. Unrelated to the complexity of the task, I found it hard to manage my time, or structure an argument, or see how one thought followed another. Directing my attention felt outside my grasp. I confessed to a friend that I had been Googling the symptoms of ADHD, increasingly convinced I would receive a diagnosis. Or maybe, he replied, kindly, my struggle had more to do with spending upwards of eight hours a day staring at screens, without real breaks, for weeks at a time. Maybe the mental strain I was feeling was not a sign of executive dysfunction, but an apt response.
“I’ve studied hundreds of people over the decades, and many, many people report feeling distracted and having a loss of control,” says cognitive psychologist Gloria Mark over Zoom. “But not everybody,” she adds. A professor of informatics at the University of California, Mark has been researching human-computer interaction and technology’s effects on our day-to-day lives since the mid 1990s. Now, in her first book Attention Span: Finding Focus for a Fulfilling Life, Mark brings together her findings for a lay audience, and the results are startling. It’s not as simple as flow good, screens bad. Most strikingly, it is not even the case that we should necessarily be striving to focus at all.
Broadly speaking, there are two schools of thought on attention. The first argues that we haven’t lost our ability to focus, it has been wrested, even “stolen”, from us by technology. In this view we’re little more than lab rats lured by notifications and algorithms, pings and dings in a large-scale social experiment. We may develop strategies for resisting those dopamine dispensers, …….