Our capacity as a society has been subject to marked transformation in the past two decades and has been largely influenced by the (not so subtle) role technology in shaping daily living. The consequence on our neurobiology is not only relevant for clinical purposes but also within the general population – and will continue to be as we move into the future. To understand what is truly happening with our attention it is necessary to have both a broader and focused lens, so we can more effectively navigate these exponential changes.

            The broader lens refers to myths about our human capacity for attention, the ‘economy of attention’ and the way we currently live our lives. An important place to start is the term “multitasking”, a term that was originally coined to describe computer processes. Crucially, what we know now is that the human brain, unlike artificial intelligence cannot compute multiple things at the same time. What is really happening is that we are switching between multiple different tasks – but only paying attention to one task at a time. The cognitive cost of this perpetual switching is that we decondition our minds from being able to hold sustained attention for meaningful tasks. The term that is used to describe the mind’s attentional focus is “spotlight” – and when our spotlight is being rented out to multiple different stimuli on a regular basis, we end up with less quality and in-depth focus. Peak experiences or “Flow states” by requisite need us to remain connected to a single meaningful task and persist to the edges of one’s ability to get the most out the activity. Importantly, the role of technology in facilitating this attentional shift is not one to ignore. Without going to considerable depth on the matter, our humanly attention has become a measurable commodity. So, the virtual world is founded on the economy of attention, and our attention is essentially being engineered away from what we would ordinarily consider a meaningful way to pass our time.

Given the increasing and unchangeable role of technology as part of society moving forward, it’s also important to understand how this interacts with our internal “hardwiring” – so to speak. The way the brain functions varies quite significantly in response to environmental factors, and importantly the impact of stress on our most evolved brain region, the prefrontal cortex (Arnsten, 2009). This is the part of the brain behind our foreheads that is responsible for our higher order thinking and decision making; essentially this part serves to control our thoughts, behaviours, and emotions. What we know now is that exposure to stress has quite a dramatic effect on this region’s ability to fulfil this function (Datta and Arnsten, 2019). Stress changes our biological priorities, and it immediately shifts our capacity to focus or pay attention to meaningful activities. This understanding of the human brain and its vulnerabilities is influencing how technology is engineered to (1) Activate a stress response and reduce effective decision making, (2) keep us in this state to ensure our attention remains diluted across a multiverse of distractibility. Another layer to this issue involves the lifestyle factors that have shifted how we live – and our natural biological hardwiring as humans (i.e. hunter gatherers) that are no longer being fulfilled.

What we are seeing in clinical populations mirrors this increase in inattention. Diagnoses of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Primarily, the structural differences in the brain of individuals with these diagnoses – mean that decision making and using the part of our brain that has formed to help with regulating our thoughts, emotions and behaviours is affected (Castellanos et al, 2006). In the face of these challenges, there are evidence-based treatments available – with a combination of psychological intervention, coaching and pharmacotherapy as being highly effective in gradually bringing more agency in decision making to an individual’s life. Though this last part refers to clinical populations, there is no doubt the phenomenon of inattention is affecting us more than ever – and may continue to do so unless we can do as a collective pay attention to it.

Some helpful ideas to get started:

  • Setting screen time reminders and/or limits on your devices.
  • Daily physical activity to rejuvenate and nourish your brain.
  • Spend time in Nature.

Resources / Citations

Stolen focus – Johann Hari

The Social Dilemma – Netflix Documentary

Arnsten AF. Stress signalling pathways that impair prefrontal cortex structure and function. Nat Rev Neuroscience. 2009 Jun;10(6):410-22. doi: 10.1038/nrn2648.

Datta, D., & Arnsten, A. F. (2019). Loss of prefrontal cortical higher cognition with uncontrollable stress: molecular mechanisms, changes with age, and relevance to treatment. Brain sciences, 9(5), 113.

Castellanos, F. X., Sonuga-Barke, E. J., Milham, M. P., & Tannock, R. (2006). Characterizing cognition in ADHD: beyond executive dysfunction. Trends in cognitive sciences, 10(3), 117-123.