A rather startling and I have to say, appalling statistic, came to my attention this last week: in a typical year, 57 percent of Americans do not read a single book. The average American spent …
A rather startling and I have to say, appalling statistic, came to my attention this last week: in a typical year, 57 percent of Americans do not read a single book. The average American spent seventeen minutes a day reading books and 5.4 hours on their phone (as of 2017.) I gleaned these bits of information not on the internet but reading a fascinating and informative book, Stolen Focus, with the subtitle Why You Can’t Pay Attention––and How to Think Deeply Again. Author Johann Hari has written for The New York Times, Le Monde, The Guardian, and other newspapers, authored two other books, and given TED Talks that have been viewed over 80 million times.
Stolen Focus is worthy of reading and rereading, packed with well-documented information and analysis. Our change in reading habits is just one small, but important part of this portrait of factors connected with the attrition of focus and sustained attention. Hari looks behind the scenes of social media platforms and other businesses that have strategized to intentionally catch and fragment our attention for their profit. You might think, “Well, that’s how it is these days. I hate it, but nothing can be done about it,” but Hari disagrees with that thinking.
First, he explodes the myth of multi-tasking, a term coined when computer technology utilized multiple processors in one machine to handle two or more things simultaneously. MIT neuroscientist Earl Miller explained that given the fundamental structure of the human brain, it can handle only one or two thoughts at once, despite what employers would like to expect of their employees. What’s really happening is we are juggling mental tasks, switching our attention from one to the next and back again, and this reduces our ability to focus in several ways. Imagine you’re paying bills and get a text, so you stop to read it, then return to your bills. It takes time to refocus, which causes a drop in your performance, as much as 20 to 30 percent less. If you are distracted by texts, emails, and phone calls throughout your day, you are losing much more time than just the reading time. Research has shown that technological distraction causes a drop in IQ of ten points, double the effect caused by smoking cannabis.
The second cost is the increase in errors due to the switching, and the time lost for deeper thinking because you are backtracking and correcting errors. The third cost is called the “creativity drain.” Creative ideas come from recognizing relationships between previously unconnected ideas and linking them together in a new way. For this to happen, your mind needs free, undistracted time. A fourth cost is the “diminished memory effect” documented by a UCLA team. Given two tasks to accomplish, participants remembered less about what they had done compared to people who focused on one task, perhaps because it takes mental space and energy to create memories.
We are also challenged to filter out other distractions in our environment such as noise in workplaces, classrooms, and urban environments, demanding our attention, affecting our flow of thoughts and perhaps our sleep. They all take a toll.
Professor Miller said that we have created in our culture “a perfect storm of cognitive degradation as a result of distraction.” We have become ADHD-ish as a society. Hari also delineates many causes including an increase in physical and mental exhaustion, sleep deprivation, disruption of mind wandering, crippling of flow states, deterioration of sustained reading, the surge in stress, our deteriorating diets, rising pollution, the rise of technology that can track and manipulate us, and confinement of our children, both physically and psychologically. That’s not an easy paragraph to read, but it speaks to the realities of what is happening. Hari devotes a chapter to twelve causes, so I can barely skim the surface here.
Hari does believe system change is possible and cites examples of major changes in our society in the last 60 years, including civil rights for women, minorities and gays, including gay marriage, Those changes happened because committed people demanded change and worked to make it happen. He thinks the tech industry is more than disingenuous when it publicly denies culpability, saying individuals can just turn off notifications or not use their phones, when the goals of social media and businesses are to keep you hooked, isolated, and online for as much time as possible because that’s how they make money. Sophisticated algorithms and features like continuous scrolling and videos keep you engaged. Individuals can certainly make changes in their habits, but Hari says it’s not enough, and he offers a vision of how social media and internet businesses could have goals of improving our lives instead of just increasing their bottom line. Some examples: slowing down the process by having to click for the next page; setting time limits that you want to spend on a site, then asking if you want to continue. He recognizes such changes would not be enthusiastically embraced, so his larger vision includes government banning surveillance capitalism (online tracking and selling private data) with social media platforms funding through subscriptions. Then they would be motivated to work for their subscribers instead of advertisers. Classifying the internet as a public utility to be governed by the public is another option.
Back to reading, which is one of the most common forms of flow that people experience, spending hours on one task. Reading novels lets the reader immerse themselves in other worlds, imagining what it’s like to be in someone else’s head while experiencing the complexity of their lives, goals, and motivations. This simulates social situations and develops understanding of others, reducing the “us versus them” mentality. Researchers likened fiction to being an empathy gym, boosting the reader’s ability through practice to empathize, using the same cognitive processes used to understand their peers. Watching extended TV series about people’s lives has the same effect. Shorter segments and clips do not create that kind of connection, nor does nonfiction. Psychology professor and researcher Raymond Mar explained his focus on the effects of reading fiction on human consciousness: “We’re all on the same ball of mud and water that is heading toward a catastrophic end potentially. If we are going to solve these problems, we can’t do it alone. That’s why I think empathy is so valuable.”
We certainly have often seen the lack of empathy with some politicians and their followers, so maybe we should be distributing novels to them instead of spending money on TV ads and brochures.