👉 https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/57933306

Chapters

1 Cause One: The Increase in Speed, Switching and Filtering

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Set away distractions to see what you’re distracted from:

It’s when you set aside your distractions, he said, that you begin to see what you were distracting yourself from.

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Information overflow:

What they discovered is that there is one mechanism that can make this happen every time. You just have to flood the system with more information. The more information you pump in, the less time people can focus on any individual piece of it.

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On the upper class aware of the risks of technology:

Shortly before I met with him, Sune had seen a photograph of Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, standing in front of a room of people who were all wearing virtual-reality headsets. He was the only person standing in actual reality, looking at them, smiling, pacing proudly around. When he saw it, Sune said, ‘I was like – holy shit, this is a metaphor for the future.’ If we don’t change course, he fears we are headed towards a world where ‘there’s going to be an upper class of people that are very aware’ of the risks to their attention and find ways to live within their limits, and then there will be the rest of the society with ‘fewer resources to resist the manipulation, and they’re going to be living more and more inside their computers, being manipulated more and more’.

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On cognitive bandwidth:

One of the leading experts on this topic is Guy Claxton, professor of learning sciences at the University of Winchester, who I went to interview in Sussex, in England. He has analysed what happens to a person’s focus if they engage in deliberately slow practices, like yoga, or tai chi, or meditation, as discovered in a broad range of scientific studies, and he has shown they improve your ability to pay attention by a significant amount. I asked him why. He said that ‘*we have to shrink the world to fit our cognitive bandwidth*’. If you go too fast, you overload your abilities, and they degrade. But when you practise moving at a speed that is compatible with human nature – and you build that into your daily life – you begin to train your attention and focus. ‘That’s why those disciplines make you smarter. It’s not about humming or wearing orange robes.’ Slowness, he explained, nurtures attention, and speed shatters it.

2 Cause Two: The Crippling of Our Flow States

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Narcissism as a corruption of attention:

I felt like everywhere I went, I was surrounded by people who were broadcasting but not receiving. Narcissism, it occurred to me, is a corruption of attention – it’s where your attention becomes turned in only on yourself and your own ego. I don’t say this with any sense of superiority.

3 Cause Three: The Rise of Physical and Mental Exhaustion

4 Cause Four: The Collapse of Sustained Reading

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Reading books:

Firstly, you are slowly making sense of the world. Jonathan gave me an example. When you read a book – as you are doing now – you obviously focus on the individual words and sentences, but there’s always a little bit of your mind that is wandering. You are thinking about how these words relate to your own life. You are thinking about how these sentences relate to what I said in previous chapters. You are thinking about what I might say next. You are wondering if what I am saying is full of contradictions, or whether it will all come together in the end. Suddenly you picture a memory from your childhood, or from what you saw on TV last week. ‘You draw together the different parts of the book in order to make sense of the key theme,’ he said. This isn’t a flaw in your reading. This is reading. If you weren’t letting your mind wander a little bit right now, you wouldn’t really be reading this book in a way that would make sense to you. Having enough mental space to roam is essential for you to be able to understand a book.

What happens when you read a book:

5 Cause Five: The Disruption of Mind-Wandering

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Beyonce, attention and the spotlight:

In 1890 the founder of modern American psychology, William James, wrote – in the most influential text ever (in the Western world, at least) on this subject – that ‘everyone knows what attention is’. Attention, he said, is a spotlight. To put it in our terms, it’s the moment Beyoncé appears, alone, on the stage, and everyone else around you seems to vanish.

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Distraction = Not being able to put spotlight on one thing:

Attention is usually defined as a person’s ability to selectively attend to something in the environment. So when I said I was distracted, I meant that I couldn’t narrow the spotlight of my attention down to the one thing I want to focus on.

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“You are doing nothing at all”?

On long train or bus journeys, whenever I would see somebody just sit there for six hours, doing nothing but stare out of the window, I would feel an urge to lean over to them and say, ‘I’m sorry to disturb you. It’s none of my business, but I just wanted to check – you do realise that you have a limited amount of time in which to be alive, and the clock counting down towards death is constantly ticking, and you’ll never get back these six hours you are spending doing nothing at all? And when you are dead, you’ll be dead forever? You know that, right?

Default Mode Network

Their brains, it seemed, were not inactive, as his med-school tutors had said they should be. Activity had shifted from one part of the brain to another – but the brain was still highly active. Surprised, he began to study this in detail. He named the region of the brain that becomes more active when you think you’re not doing much ‘the default mode network

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Stimulus-driven, stimulus-bound environment:

All this frenetic digital interruption is ‘pulling our attention away from our thoughts’, and ‘suppressing your default mode network… I think we’re almost in this constant stimulus-driven, stimulus-bound environment, moving from one distraction to the next.’ If you don’t remove yourself from that, it will ‘suppress whatever train of thought you had’.

What happens during mind-wandering

Three crucial things that are happening during mind-wandering:

Effects of mind-wandering:

has found that the more you let your mind wander, the better you are at having organised personal goals, being creative, and making patient, long-term decisions. You will be able to do these things better if you let your mind drift, and slowly, unconsciously, make sense of your life.

Mind-wandering promotes creativity:

‘Creativity is not [where you create] some new thing that’s emerged from your brain,’ Nathan told me. ‘It’s a new association between two things that were already there.’ *Mind-wandering allows ‘more extended trains of thought to unfold, which allows for more associations to be made.*’

Crisis of lost mind-wandering

So we aren’t just facing a crisis of lost spotlight focus – we are facing a crisis of lost mind-wandering.

Constant skimming

We either focus nor mind-wander. we’re constanstly skimming:

how we spend our time rapidly switching between tasks, and I realised that in our current culture, most of the time we’re not focusing, but we’re not mind-wandering either. We’re constantly skimming, in an unsatisfying whirr.

6 Cause Six: The Rise of Technology That Can Track and Manipulate You (Part One)

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One of the texts that most struck Tristan was based on the philosophy of B.F. Skinner, the man who, as I had learned earlier, had found a way to get pigeons and rats and pigs to do whatever he wanted by offering the right ‘reinforcements’ for their behaviour. After years of falling out of fashion, his ideas were back with full force.

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One day, James Williams – the former Google strategist I met – addressed an audience of hundreds of leading tech designers and asked them a simple question. ‘How many of you want to live in the world you are designing?’ There was a silence in the room. People looked around them. Nobody put up their hand.

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Many Silicon Valley insiders predicted that it would only get worse. One of its most famous investors, Paul Graham, wrote: ‘Unless the forms of technological progress that produced these things are subject to different laws than technological progress in general, the world will get more addictive in the next forty years than it did in the last forty.’

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but it won’t alert you to the physical proximity of somebody you might want to see in the real world. There’s no button that says ‘I want to meet up – who’s nearby and free?’ This isn’t technologically tricky. It would be really easy for Facebook to be designed so that when you opened it, it told you which of your friends were close by and which of them would like to meet for a drink or dinner that week. The coding to do that is simple: Tristan and Aza and their friends could probably write it in a day. And it would be hugely popular. Ask any Facebook user – would you like Facebook to physically connect you to your friends more, instead of keeping you endlessly scrolling? So – it’s an easy tweak, and users would love it. Why doesn’t it happen? Why won’t the market provide it? To understand why, Tristan and his colleagues explained to me, you need to step back and understand more about the business model of Facebook and the other social-media companies. If you follow the trail from this simple question, you will see the root of many of the problems we are facing. Facebook makes more money for every extra second you are staring through a screen at their site, and they lose money every time you put the screen down. They make this money in two ways. Until I started to spend time in Silicon Valley, I had only naively thought about the first and the most obvious. Clearly – as I wrote in the last chapter – the more time you look at their sites, the more advertisements you see. Advertisers pay Facebook to get to you and your eyeballs.

Surveillance capitalism

This is the business model that built and sustains the sites on which we spend so much of our lives. The technical term for this system – coined by the brilliant Harvard Professor Shoshana Zuboff – is ‘surveillance capitalism’.

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Tendency to watch more bad news

On average, we will stare at something negative and outrageous for a lot longer than we will stare at something positive and calm. You will stare at a car crash longer than you will stare at a person handing out flowers by the side of the road, even though the flowers will give you a lot more pleasure than the mangled bodies in a crash. Scientists have been proving this effect in different contexts for a long time – if they showed you a photo of a crowd, and some of the people in it were happy, and some angry, you would instinctively pick out the angry faces first. Even ten-week-old babies respond differently to angry faces. This has been known about in psychology for years and is based on a broad body of evidence. It’s called ‘negativity bias’.

Social media and addiction

First, these sites and apps are designed to train our minds to crave frequent rewards. They make us hunger for hearts and likes. When I was deprived of them in Provincetown, I felt bereft, and had to go through a painful withdrawal. Once you have been conditioned to need these reinforcements, Tristan told one interviewer, ‘It’s very hard to be with reality, the physical world, the built world – because it doesn’t offer as frequent and as immediate rewards as this thing does.’ This craving will drive you to pick up your phone more than you would if you had never been plugged into this system. You’ll break away from your work and your relationships to seek a sweet, sweet hit of retweets. Second, these sites push you to switch tasks more frequently than you normally would – to pick up your phone, or click over to Facebook on your laptop. When you do this, all the costs to your attention caused by switching – as I discussed in Chapter One – kick in. The evidence there shows this is as bad for the quality of your thinking as getting drunk or stoned. Third, these sites learn – as Tristan put it – how to ‘frack’ you. These sites get to know what makes you tick, in very specific ways – they learn what you like to look at, what excites you, what angers you, what enrages you. They learn your personal triggers – what, specifically, will distract you. This means that they can drill into your attention. Whenever you are tempted to put your phone down, the site keeps drip-feeding you the kind of material that it has learned, from your past behaviour, keeps you scrolling. Older technologies – like the printed page, or the television – can’t target you in this way. Social media knows exactly where to drill. It learns your most distractible spots and targets them. Fourth, because of the way the algorithms work, these sites make you angry a lot of the time. Scientists have been proving in experiments for years that anger itself screws with your ability to pay attention. They have discovered that if I make you angry, you will pay less attention to the quality of arguments around you, and you will show ‘decreased depth of processing’ – that is, you will think in a shallower, less attentive way. We’ve all had that feeling – you start prickling with rage, and your ability to properly listen goes out the window. The business models of these sites are jacking up our anger every day. Remember the words their algorithms promote – attack, bad, blame. Fifth, in addition to making you angry, these sites make you feel that you are surrounded by other people’s anger. This can trigger a different psychological response in you. As Dr Nadine Harris, the Surgeon General of California, who you’ll meet later in this book, explained to me: Imagine that one day you are attacked by a bear. You will stop paying attention to your normal concerns – what you’re going to eat tonight, or how you will pay the rent. You become vigilant. Your attention flips to scanning for unexpected dangers all around you. For days and weeks afterwards, you will find it harder to focus on more everyday concerns. This isn’t limited to bears. These sites make you feel that you are in an environment full of anger and hostility, so you become more vigilant – a situation where more of your attention shifts to searching for dangers, and less and less is available for slower forms of focus like reading a book or playing with your kids. Sixth, these sites set society on fire. This is the most complex form of harm to our attention, with several stages, and I think probably the most harmful. Let’s go through it slowly.

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As a result, we are being pushed all the time to pay attention to nonsense – things that just aren’t so. If the ozone layer was threatened today, the scientists warning about it would find themselves being shouted down by bigoted viral stories claiming the threat was all invented by the billionaire George Soros, or that there’s no such thing as the ozone layer anyway, or that the holes were really being made by Jewish space lasers.

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On self-control and a whole industry trying to steal your attention:

‘You can try having self-control, but there are a thousand engineers on the other side of the screen working against you.

Surveillance capitalism and alternatives

In practice, the day after a ban, these companies would have to find different ways to fund themselves. There is one model that is obvious, and an alternative form of capitalism that everyone reading this will have some experience of – subscription. Let’s imagine each of us had to pay fifty cents or a dollar every month to use Facebook. Suddenly, Facebook would no longer be working for advertisers and offering up your secret wishes and preferences as their real product. No. It would be working for you. Its job – for the first time – would be to actually figure out what makes you happy, and to give it to you – instead of figuring out what makes advertisers happy, and how they can manipulate you to give it to them. So if, like most people, you want to be able to focus, the site would have to be redesigned to facilitate that. If you want to be socially connected, instead of isolated in front of your screen, it would have to figure out how to make that possible.

7 Cause Six: The Rise of Technology That Can Track and Manipulate You (Part Two)

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Facebook and their algorithms:

The unit was called Common Ground. After studying all the hidden data – the stuff that Facebook doesn’t release to the public – the company’s scientists reached a definite conclusion. They wrote: ‘Our algorithms exploit the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness,’ and ‘if left unchecked’, the site would continue to pump its users with ‘more and more divisive content in an effort to gain user attention and increase time on the platform’. A separate internal Facebook team, whose work also leaked to the Journal, had independently reached the same conclusions. They found that 64 percent of all the people joining extremist groups were finding their way to them because Facebook’s algorithms were directly recommending them. This meant across the world, people were seeing in their Facebook feeds racist, fascist and even Nazi groups next to the words: ‘Groups You Should Join.’ They warned that in Germany, one-third of all the political groups on the site were extremist. Facebook’s own team was blunt, concluding: ‘Our recommendation systems grow the problem.

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“Eat your Veggies”:

Once Facebook was shown – in plain language, by their own people – what they were doing, how did the company’s executives respond? According to the Journal’s in-depth reporting, they mocked the research, calling it an ‘Eat Your Veggies’ approach. They introduced some minor tweaks, but dismissed most of the recommendations. The Common Ground team was disbanded and has ceased to exist. The Journal reported dryly: ‘Zuckerberg also signalled he was losing interest in the effort to recalibrate the platform in the name of the social good … asking that they not bring him something like that again.’ I read this and I thought of my friend Raull Santiago, in his favela in Rio, being terrorised by helicopters sent by the far-right government that was elected with the help of these algorithms – algorithms so powerful that Bolsonaro’s supporters responded to his victory by chanting, ‘Facebook! Facebook!’ I realised that if Facebook won’t change the fact that their algorithm unintentionally promotes fascism – that it promotes Nazism in Germany – they will never care about protecting your focus and attention. These companies will never restrain themselves. The risks of letting them continue behaving the way they have are greater than the risks of overreacting. They have to be stopped. They have to be stopped by us.

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The 4Hour Work Week

Something similar has been tried in many other places, and even though the experiments are quite different, they keep finding similar outcomes. In 1920s Britain, W. G. Kellogg – the manufacturer of cereals – cut his staff from an eight-hour day to a six-hour day, and workplace accidents (a good measure of attention) fell by 41 percent. In 2019 in Japan, Microsoft moved to a four-day week, and they reported a 40 percent improvement in productivity. In Gothenberg in Sweden around the same time, a care home for elderly people went from an eight-hour day to a six-hour day with no loss of pay, and as a result, their workers slept more, experienced less stress, and took less time off sick. In the same city, Toyota cut two hours per day off the work week, and it turned out their mechanics produced 114 percent of what they had before, and profits went up by 25 percent.

8 Cause Seven: The Rise of Cruel Optimism

9 The First Glimpses of the Deeper Solution

10 Cause Eight: The Surge in Stress and How It Is Triggering Vigilance

11 The Places That Figured Out How to Reverse the Surge in Speed and Exhaustion

12 Causes Nine and Ten: Our Deteriorating Diets and Rising Pollution

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Personal responsibilty is getting us nowehere

How is that working out for us? The scientists who have studied it discovered that 95 percent of people in our culture who lose weight on a diet regain it within one to five years. That’s nineteen out of every twenty people. Why? It’s because it misses most of why you (and I) gained weight in the first place. It has no systemic analysis. It doesn’t talk about the crisis in our food supply, which surrounds us with addictive, highly processed foods that bear no relationship to what previous generations of humans ate. It doesn’t explain the crisis of stress and anxiety that drives us to overeat. It doesn’t address the fact that we live in cities where you have to squeeze yourself into a steel box to get anywhere. Diet books ignore the fact that you live in a society and culture that are shaping and pushing you, every day, to act in certain ways. A diet doesn’t change your wider environment – and it’s the wider environment that is the cause of the crisis. Your diet ends, and you’re still in an unhealthy environment that’s pushing you to gain weight. Trying to lose weight in the environment we’ve built is like trying to run up an escalator that is constantly carrying you down. A few people might heroically sprint to the top – but most of us will find ourselves back at the bottom, feeling like it’s our fault.

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We could have looked instead at what does work: changing the environment in specific ways. We could have used government policy to make fresh, nutritious food cheap and accessible, and sugar-filled junk expensive and inaccessible. We could have reduced the factors that cause people to be so stressed that they comfort eat. We could have built cities people can easily walk or bike through. We could have banned the targeting of junk food ads at children, shaping their tastes for life. That’s why countries that have done some of this – like Norway, or Denmark, or the Netherlands – have much lower levels of obesity, and countries that have focused on telling individual overweight people to pull themselves together, like the US and UK, have very high levels of obesity. If all the energy people like me had put into shaming and starving ourselves had been put instead into demanding these political changes, there would be far less obesity now, and a lot less misery.

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Individual restraints don’t work:

There was a different way we could have reacted to the obesity crisis when it began forty or so years ago. We could have listened to the evidence that purely practising individual restraint – in an unchanged environment – rarely works for long, except in one in twenty cases like Nir’s.

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That’s the magic bullet – just go back to whole foods. Foods as they were originally intended.’ He quoted Michael Pollan, who says we should eat only food that our grandparents would have recognised as food, and we should shop primarily around the outer edges of the supermarket – the fruit and veg at the front, and the meat and fish at the back. The stuff in the middle, he warned, isn’t really food at

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On constant exposure to pollution:

The form of pollution we, as ordinary citizens, know most about is in the air all around us, so I interviewed Barbara Maher, who is a professor of environmental science at the University of Lancaster in England, and has been carrying out potentially game-changing research on how it is affecting our brains. She explained to me that if you live in a major city today, every day you are breathing in a chemical soup – a mixture of many different contaminants, including those spewed from car engines. Your brain did not evolve to absorb these chemicals, like iron, through the respiratory system, and it doesn’t know how to handle them. So just by living in a polluted city, she said, you are experiencing a ‘repeated chronic insult to your brain’, and it will react by becoming inflamed. I asked her: what happens if that goes on for months and years? She said it ‘is going to lead to damage to the nerve cells, to the neurons. Depending on the dose [i.e. how bad the pollution is], depending on your genetic susceptibility, eventually, over time, your brain cells will be damaged.

Lead pollution (blei)

This seemed really daunting. It told me there’s a focus-killer literally all around us, and I felt overwhelmed. How can we fight it? I began to get some clues once I had learned some history. I started by looking at the effect of one specific pollutant on our attention: lead. As far back as ancient Rome, it was known that lead was poisonous to human beings. The architect Vitruvius, for example, begged the Roman authorities to not use it to build the city’s pipes. Yet for centuries lead was used to paint homes and in water pipes, and then in the early twentieth century it was added to petrol, which meant it was pumped into the air of every city in the world and breathed in by its inhabitants. Scientists warned almost at once that leaded gasoline was likely to produce disaster. When in 1925 General Motors announced that putting lead in gasoline was a ‘gift of God’, its CEO was warned by Dr Alice Hamilton, the leading expert on lead in the US, that he was playing with fire. ‘Where there is lead,’ she said, ‘some case of lead poisoning sooner or later develops.’ It was clear this could have a terrible effect on people’s brains: in high doses, lead poisoning makes people hallucinate, lose their minds or die. The factories where leaded petrol was developed had outbreaks of staff members going violently insane and dying because of their exposure to it.

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But Barbara Demeneix warned me that since then, ‘there are so many other [attention-damaging] chemicals that … are increasing on the market’ that she fears it is now dwarfing the benefit of ditching lead. So I asked her – what chemicals are we being exposed to today that have potential effects on attention? ‘Let’s start with the main culprits: pesticides. Plasticisers. Flame-retardants. Cosmetics.’ She said ‘of over two hundred pesticides on the market in Europe, about two-thirds affect either brain development or thyroid hormone signalling’. When monkeys are exposed to the same level of the common pollutant polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) as humans currently are, they develop serious problems with their working memory and mental development. A team of scientists studied the amount of a pollutant named bisphenol A, or BPA – which is used to coat 80 percent of metal cans – that mothers are exposed to. They found that exposure to the chemical predicts which of them will have kids with behaviour problems.

13 Cause Eleven: The Rise of ADHD and How We Are Responding to It

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when adhd is diagnosed early

When it comes to our own attention problems as adults, we often readily acknowledge a whole range of influences on us – the rise of invasive technologies, stress, lack of sleep, and so on. But when our children face the same challenges, over the past twenty years we have been drawn to a starkly simple story: that this problem is largely the result of a biological disorder.

Environmental influence on kids

children who struggle to focus are like Emma the beagle, and are being medicated for what is in fact an environmental problem? I learned that scientists fiercely disagree about this. We do know that the huge rise in children being diagnosed with attention problems has coincided with several other big changes in the way children live. Kids are now allowed to run around far less – instead of playing in the streets and in their neighbourhoods, they now spend almost all their time inside their homes or school classrooms. Children are now fed a very different diet – one that lacks many nutrients needed for brain development, and is full of sugars and dyes that negatively affect attention. Children’s schooling has changed, so it now focuses almost entirely on preparing them for high-stress testing, with very little space for nurturing their curiosity. Is it a coincidence that ADHD diagnoses are rising at the same time as these big changes, or is there a connection? I’ve already discussed the evidence that our dramatic changes in diet and rise in pollution are causing a rise in children’s attention problems, and I’ll come to the evidence about how the other changes might be affecting children’s attention in the next chapter.

14 Cause Twelve: The Confinement of Our Children, Both Physically and Psychologically

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Isabel told me the schools squeezing out play are ‘making a huge mistake’. She said: ‘I would first ask them – what is their objective? What are you trying to achieve?’ Presumably, they want children to learn. ‘I just can’t see where these people get their insights from, because all the evidence shows it’s the other way round: our brains are more supple, more plastic, more creative’ when we have had the chance to ‘learn through play. The primary technology for learning is play. You learn to learn in play. And in a world where information is always changing, why do you want to fill their heads with information? We have no idea what the world will be in twenty years. Surely we want to be creating brains that are adaptable, and have the capacity to assess context, and can be thinking critically. All these things are trained through play. So it’s so misguided, it’s unbelievable.

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Every child, when they go out into the world, is given a card to show to any adult who stops them to ask where their parents are. It says: ‘I’m not lost or neglected. If you think it’s wrong for me to be on my own, please read Huckleberry Finn and visit letgrow.org. Remember your own childhood. Was your parent with you every second? And with today’s crime rate back to what it was in 1963, it is safer to play outside now than when you were at my age. Let me grow.

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something the writer Neale Donald Walsch wrote – ‘*life begins at the edge of your comfort zone*’.

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Because I had grown up in such a different system, I kept having doubts about these alternatives. But I kept coming back to one key fact: the country that is often judged by international league tables to have the most successful schools in the world, Finland, is closer to these progressive models than anything we would recognise. Their children don’t go to school at all until they are seven years old – before then, they just play. Between the ages of seven and sixteen, kids arrive at school at 9 a.m. and leave at 2 p.m. They are given almost no homework, and they sit almost no tests until they graduate from high school. Free play is at the beating heart of Finnish kids’ lives: by law, teachers have to give kids fifteen minutes of free play for every forty-five minutes of instruction. What’s the outcome? Only 0.1 percent of their kids are diagnosed with attention problems, and Finns are among the most literate, numerate and happy people in the world. Hannah told

Conclusion Attention Rebellion

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He told me that after years of studying focus, he has come to believe that attention takes three different forms – all of which are now being stolen. When we went through them, it clarified for me a lot of what I had learned

james willson

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First layer of attention is spotlight:

The first layer of your attention, he said, is your spotlight. This is when you focus on ‘immediate actions’, like, ‘I’m going to walk into the kitchen and make a coffee.’ You want to find your glasses? You want to see what’s in the fridge? You want to finish reading this chapter of my book? It’s called the spotlight because – as I explained earlier – it involves narrowing down your focus. If your spotlight gets distracted or disrupted, you are prevented from carrying out near-term actions like this.

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2nd layer of attention is starlight:

The second layer of your attention is your starlight. This is, he says, the focus you can apply to your ‘longer-term goals – projects over time’. You want to write a book. You want to set up a business. You want to be a good parent. It’s called the starlight because when you feel lost, you look up to the stars, and you remember the direction you are travelling in. If you become distracted from your starlight, he said, you ‘lose sight of the longer-term goals’. You start to forget where you are headed.

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3rd layer of attention is daylight:

The third layer of your attention is your daylight. This is the form of focus that makes it possible for you to know what your longer-term goals are in the first place. How do you know you want to write a book? How do you know you want to set up a business? How do you know what it means to be a good parent? Without being able to reflect and think clearly, you won’t be able to figure these things out. He gave it this name because it’s only when a scene is flooded with daylight that you can see the things around you most clearly. If you get so distracted that you lose your sense of the daylight, James says, ‘In many ways you may not even be able to figure out who you are, what you wanted to do, [or] where you want to go.

Layers of attention

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Mind being DOSed:

He said a different metaphor might also help us to understand this. Sometimes, hackers decide to attack a website in a very specific way. They get an enormous number of computers to try to connect to a website all at once – and by doing this, they ‘overwhelm its capacity for managing traffic, to the point where it can’t be accessed by anyone else, and it goes down’. It crashes. This is called a ‘denial-of-service attack’. James thinks we are all living through something like a denial-of-service attack on our minds. ‘We’re that server, and there’s all these things trying to grab our attention by throwing information at us … It undermines our capacity for responding to anything. It leaves us in a state of either distraction, or paralysis.’ We are so inundated ‘that it fills up your world, and you can’t find a place to get a view on all of it and realise that you’re so distracted and figure out what to do about it. It can just colonise your entire world,’ he said. You are left so depleted that ‘you don’t get the space to push back against it’.

Economic growth

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economic groeth and degrading attention

puzzling away at this question. Why? Why has this been happening so long? This trend far precedes Facebook, or most of the factors I have written about here. What’s the underlying cause stretching back to the 1880s? I discussed it with many people, and the most persuasive answer came from the Norwegian scientist Thomas Hylland Eriksen, who is a professor of social anthropology. Ever since the Industrial Revolution, he said, our economies have been built around a new and radical idea – economic growth. This is the belief that every year, the economy – and each individual company in it – should get bigger and bigger. That’s how we now define success. If a country’s economy grows, its politicians are likely to be reelected. If a company grows, its CEOs are likely garlanded. If a country’s economy or a company’s share price shrinks, politicians or CEOs face a greater risk of being booted out. Economic growth is the central organising principle of our society. It is at the heart of how we see the world. Thomas explained that growth can happen in one of two ways. The first is that a corporation can find new markets – by inventing something new, or exporting something to a part of the world that doesn’t have it yet. The second is that a corporation can persuade existing consumers to consume more. If you can get people to eat more, or to sleep less, then you have found a source of economic growth. Mostly, he believes, we achieve growth today primarily through this second option. Corporations are constantly finding ways to cram more stuff into the same amount of time. To give one example: they want you to watch TV and follow the show on social media. Then you see twice as many ads. This inevitably speeds up life. If the economy has to grow every year, in the absence of new markets it has to get you and me to do more and more in the same amount of time.

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My friend Dr Jason Hickel, who is an economic anthropologist at the University of London, is perhaps the leading critic of the concept of economic growth in the world – and he has been explaining for a long time that there is an alternative. When I went to see him, he explained that we need to move beyond the idea of growth to something called a ‘steady-state economy’. We would abandon economic growth as the driving principle of the economy and instead choose a different set of goals. At the moment we think we’re prosperous if we are working ourselves ragged to buy things – most of which don’t even make us happy. He said we could redefine prosperity to mean having time to spend with our children, or to be in nature, or to sleep, or to dream, or to have secure work. Most people don’t want a fast life – they want a good life. Nobody lies on their deathbed and thinks about all that they contributed to economic growth. A steady-state economy can allow us to choose goals that don’t raid our attention, and don’t raid the planet’s resources.

⚠: also checkout books from hickel

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