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The Belgium landscape looked like the haunted forest from a child’s nightmare. Once-verdant vegetation and trees were stripped and scorched, desolated by artillery fire.
Relentless rain called for makeshift bridges, built so soldiers could traverse the mud bogs and continue the push on the Western front.
But the rain was slick. Soldiers slipped, their shoulders heavily laden with gear. The mud swallowed their legs, rendering them paralyzed Comrades reached in to pull them out. Shells showered overhead. The smell of chlorine––chemical warfare––was overwhelming, overpowered only by the stench emanating from piles of the fallen surrounding them.
Their efforts to free their flailing comrades from the mud failed. Occasionally, as they scrambled to save them, the mud would claim another victim. The sinking soldiers were left behind. Hellfire above them, unable to move, before suffocating, they had hours to sink. The panic, fear, and helplessness drove some of them to the edge of insanity. And the mud swallowed them whole.
Of all the difficult and dangerous battlefields of history, the Flanders Trenches during the winter of 1914 tops the list. Military scholars tell us that this is due to a single reason:
World War I marked a historical intersection of modern weapons with medieval strategy.
Similarly, the 21st century marks a historical intersection of modern technology with ancient biology.
There’s a war going on for your attention. And it’s relentless.
According to the data, most of us are drowning in the mess and mud; the average knowledge worker is interrupted every 11 minutes, checks their inboxes 56 times per day, and completes 1.5 hours of work per day.
If you don’t protect your consciousness, you’ll risk becoming a casualty.
The good news? Unlike WWI, the damage from today’s weapons––smartphones, laptops, social media, VR gaming devices––is self-inflicted. This means the attention war is winnable.
So what causes all this wasted attention in the first place?
In one word:
We know by now that distraction stresses us out, makes us dumber, blunts our empathy, and fragments our attention. So in this series, we’ll focus primarily on the distinctions that are most relevant to flow.
Neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley defines distractions as “goal-irrelevant information that we either encounter in our external surroundings or generate internally within our minds.”
The operative word here is “information.”
We’re wired to crave information. In primates, the brain responds to new information like how it responds to food. This served our ancestors because new information was a matter of life or death.
Learning that a lion was lurking in the bushes––new information––was more important than staying focused. In a crisis like that, ignoring Simba and finishing a task would be fatal. This is partly why our information-seeking drive is stronger than top-down cognitive control––attention, working memory, and goal management.
What’s happening under the hood here?
It starts with the nucleus accumbens––a cluster of nerve cells underneath the cerebral cortex. Neuroscientists often refer to it as the brain’s pleasure center. It’s the region that lights up when gamblers place a bet, drug addicts snort, or when people have orgasms.
The likelihood that an activity will lead to addiction links to 1) how fast it releases dopamine, 2) the intensity of that release, and 3) the reliability of that release.
Inhaling or injecting a drug––as opposed to swallowing a pill––produces a faster and stronger dopamine release. Social media, smartphones, and modern-day tech act similarly. They’re designed to cause a dopamine surge in the nucleus accumbens as fast as possible.
And the pleasure of this release is so extreme that many animals would rather die than stop experiencing it.
In a famous experiment at McGill University, neuroscientists Peter Milner and James Olds placed a small electrode in the brains of rats on the nucleus accumbens. A lever in the cage allowed these rats to send a small electrical signal directly to their nucleus accumbens.
Do you think they liked it?
Boy, how they did. They liked it so much that they did nothing else. They forgot all about eating and sleeping. Starved or not, they ignored tasty food. They even ignored sexual opportunities. The rats pressed the lever over and again until they died.
The average knowledge worker behaves similarly every time we dispatch an email, tap out a text, or gawk at our news feed. Our brain gets a dollop of dopamine and we feel a tiny sense of accomplishment. This incessant info-snacking constitutes a neural addiction.
Again, for our ancestors, this info-gathering was essential. But in a high-tech world where everything is meticulously engineered by the brightest minds of our time to seize and sustain our attention? It’s more a bug than a feature.
Technology facilitates the ability for us to be like caged rats – endlessly pressing that lever for pleasure.
And that’s just modern tech interacting with our internal dopamine system.
Attention is further threatened when you bring in everyone else.
There are over 7.9 billion people in the world. 5.3 billion of them are on the internet. 2.9 billion are active on Facebook every month.
What do these people have in common?
They want you to hear them, see them, like them, understand them, and follow them.
But that’s not all.
There are 250 million businesses. 150 million have websites. 70 million of them advertise online using 5,000 different tools to optimize their marketing efforts.
These companies spend $629 billion dollars per year on ads to do one thing:
To get your attention.
At this point, it’s hard to imagine life before our personal and professional world was so dominated and switched on. Our devices are as indispensable as they are distractible.
We check our phones every twelve minutes (often after first waking up). We check our phones up to 150 times per day (every 6-7 minutes that we are awake).
We have become interruptible every second of the day. In the average office, there’s a meager 5 minutes between interruptions. Nearly half of workplace employees respond to an email immediately after receiving it, and spend ten minutes dealing with its contents, only to take another ten to fifteen minutes to return to work. And this sort of rapid response is expected.
And these trends are exponential. It took radio 38 years to get 50 million users. For Angry Birds to reach that milestone? It took 35 days. The speed of adoption is accelerating––and our attention span is evaporating in kind.
One study by Workplace Options found that this chronic distraction is costing American businesses approximately $650 billion dollars per year in lost productivity.
This constant fragmentation of concentration has become the new normal. We’re living in a state of continuous partial attention (CPA)––a phrase coined by an ex-Microsoft and Apple consultant, Linda Stone. By adopting this always-on––anytime, anywhere, anyplace––behavior, we scan the world all the time, but rarely give full attention to anything.
Considering we’re still walking around with the same wetware our ancestors had hundreds of thousands of years ago… In the short term, we’ve adapted remarkably well to these demands on our attention.
But in the long term?
Well, distractions make us dumber. In 2005, research by Glen Wilson at the London Institute of Psychiatry found that persistent interruptions and distractions at work have a profoundly negative impact on our intelligence. In his study, those distracted by emails and phone calls saw a 10-point decrease in their IQ.
According to a 2010 study by Daniel Gilbert and Matthew Killingsworth out of Harvard, we spend nearly 47 percent of our working hours thinking about something other than what we’re doing. This “mind wandering” has been shown to decrease cognitive performance. It has a negative impact on working memory and fluid intelligence.
Distractions also stress us out. Stress hormones of adrenaline and cortisol create a physiological, hyper-alert state. We scan the environment for stimuli––itching for an info-hit––but are only temporarily assuaged. This leads to a constant assault of stress hormones.
The biggest problem?
Sources of dopamine-inducing information are everywhere, all the time. That means that, in the modern attention economy, winning the war is about what you ignore.
Research shows that the primary determinant of high-level working memory isn’t the ability to focus. Instead, memory depends more on ignoring distractions. And that ability is fragile, even among young adults.
You may think that being surrounded by sources of distractions––your phone, notifications on your laptop, other people––isn’t a big deal, as long as you don’t give in to the pull.
But here’s the key:
Filtering incoming stimuli isn’t passive.
Andrew D. Huberman (born September 26, 1975 in Palo Alto, California) is an American neuroscientist and associate professor in the Department of Neurobiology at the Stanford University School of Medicine who has made contributions to the brain development, brain plasticity, and neural regeneration and repair fields. Much of his work is focused on the visual system, including the mechanisms controlling light-mediated activation of the circadian and autonomic arousal centers in the brain, as well as brain control over conscious vision or sight.
Huberman has been credited with coining the term “Non-Sleep Deep Rest” (NSDR), referring to practices that place the brain and body into shallow sleep to accelerate neuroplasticity and help offset mental and physical fatigue.
Huberman was awarded the McKnight Foundation Neuroscience Scholar Award (2013), and a Biomedical Scholar Award from the Pew Charitable Trusts. He received the 2017 ARVO Cogan Award for his contributions to the fields of vision science and efforts to regenerate the visual system and cure blindness.
Huberman is an elected member of the National Institutes of Health Grants Advisory Panel “Neurobiology of Visual Processes”, and the editorial boards for Current Biology, The Journal of Neuroscience, The Journal of Comparative Neurology, Current Opinion in Neurobiology, Cell Reports, and Neural Development. He is a member of Faculty of 1000.