Declining attention spans have reached epidemic levels.
That’s what Adam Brown, co-director of the Center for Attention, Learning and Memory at St. Bonaventure University in New York, tells Time.
That’s certainly the case with me.
As I struggled to write the first three paragraphs of this column, I searched autotrader.com for a new car I don’t need or want; searched Facebook Marketplace for lakefront vacation homes I can’t afford; and visited Amazon.com to order more expensive treats for my Labrador, Thurber.
Like millions of others these days, I’m an easy target for clever companies that use the Internet and social media to lure me away from the tasks I should be focusing on.
The sophisticated algorithms that Facebook and others use are masterful at capturing my full attention by feeding me short video reels on car restorations, real estate investing and the dozens of other things they know I’m interested in.
What’s worse is that I’m a sucker for the dopamine hits I get every time my phone pings and I learn that somebody has “liked” or “subscribed” to one of the humorous “Thurber the Talking Lab” videos I’ve posted on youtube.com/@thurberstail.
The more I jump from focusing on one task to another, the shorter my attention span gets.
Brown tells Time that when you pause to check your phone, your brain has to shift gears to stop what it was doing and move to a new task.
He explains that the more we jump tasks, the more our brain wants to wander to find something new that captures its fancy.
Our declining ability to focus and concentrate not only makes it harder for us to get our daily work done, it is interrupting our ability to think critically about important issues.
Our duty as citizens is to participate in government policy by monitoring our elected officials and holding them to account.
That requires us to sort out the spin that politicians and others feed us from an accurate and truthful understanding of what is actually taking place — which requires concentration and reason.
For too many of us, however, the political “spin” is truthful if it supports our side but a total lie if it criticizes our side.
With more easy access to boundless information than ever before, we have the ability to explore other points of view, but we’re too impatient and distracted to spend any time doing so.
And we become ever more polarized as our politicians become ever more reckless and corrupt.
But there is hope!
Some of the experts tell Time that with a little effort we can renew our attention spans and focus.
If you need to concentrate on a task and your phone keeps interrupting you, turn it off or put it in another room.
If you are trying to finish writing a 70,000-word love story, which I have been struggling to do for some time, move to a writing nook in a spare room in your house and turn off the Internet completely.
I do this for three hours every morning and it is a heavenly way to concentrate deeply — for me, the only way.
Modern life is only going to get more complex and more distracting, but we can overcome these challenges — and for the good of us all, it’s urgent that we do so.
As a bonus, as we restore our attention spans, we’ll hopefully become more patient, thoughtful and civil with each other.