Tag Archives: Attention Span

Stolen Focus, by Johann Hari

We can’t pay attention anymore. An appalling percentage of adults no longer read any books at all. A soaring number of children have been diagnosed with ADHD. We’re getting less and less sleep. You’re thinking, “Yeah, yeah. Social media.” But your parents’ attention span was also shorter than their parents’ attention span. It’s been going on for as long as we’ve been keeping records.

Johann Hari set out to find out why he couldn’t focus for long periods of time. He loved to read, and his to-be-read pile probably resembled mine, but he could only fondly remember getting lost in a book for hours. He observed his nephew’s inability to look away from his phone, so Johann took him where he had always longed to go: Graceland. Standing in Elvis’s famous mansion, he saw that his nephew and all of the tourists of every age were staring at pictures of Graceland on their phones, rather than looking up at the actual rooms. When he started yelling at another man in exasperation, he realized that he needed to take a break.

Hari booked a three-month stay in Provincetown, Massachusetts. He left his laptop and phone with a friend far away and gave only six people the number to a dumb phone that he had bought for emergency use. It was grueling, but by the end, his mind felt calm, and not only did he get through all of the books he had brought, he also found a lovely bookstore in town where he bought even more great books. He went to the local pubs and talked to real, live people, and he started to write again.

Unhappily, it didn’t last, and he was determined to find out why. Johann started traveling around the world, to almost every continent, not only speaking to experts in the expected fields of high tech and social media, but also to brain scientists, sleep experts, ADHD physicians, scientists in pollution and food research, and many others. The interviews were fascinating, and Hari spends a chapter discussing each topic, combining scientific studies with personal anecdotes. So many of the stories resonated with changes I had seen in my own life or in the people around me, but others were shocking and desperate.

Johann believes that, although we can all make individual changes to help ourselves, there are massive problems that can only be solved if we all work together to force power structures to change. He likens this grassroots effort to the feminist and gay rights movements. While he is hopeful for the future, he also reveals that, at this moment, the problem is much deeper and more far-reaching than we understand.

I listened to an audiobook of this title, which the author reads himself. Johann is from London and has a warm and charming voice, and since he is so personally invested in his subject, there isn’t a dry moment in the book, even in the nerdiest bits of scientific study. This book is so important. Even those of us who are older and use very little social media have noticed a change, and the inability to concentrate is a serious issue for our world today, when there are critical problems that require deep thought and united action. There’s something going on that’s beyond our control, and Hari does an excellent job of putting the puzzle pieces together. His conclusion may surprise you; it’s not just social media. Let’s start a movement.

Disclaimer: I listened to an advance audiobook from Volumes. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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