The upgrading of technology and the downgrading of human beings – Tristan Harris (Ex Google engineer)
Herbert A. Simon, a Nobel Laureate, noted that “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention” and coined the term “attention economy.” Learn how our attention is just like any other commodity up for grabs and how we can regain our concentration easily through things like meditation and hobbies.
I remember my first inventive moment as a 10-year-old, sitting on the toilet seat of all places. Ironically, it was about the toilet seat! It was always so bloody cold in the winter, even with a hot radiator right next to it! I figured I could run a pipe from the radiator into a sealed toilet seat, problem solved!
Naturally, the idea went on to sell millions of ‘piping unit’s’ across the globe, making me a multimillionaire by the time I was twelve. Well… that’s what my young overactive imagination played out in my head, oblivious to the more likely reality, of thousands of lawsuits for third degree burns (That radiator was piping hot!)
Anyway, the point of this story reminds me of how my mind used to wonder freely during these moments of convenience, but of course, like many, I no longer have these moments of ‘creative genius’ when taking care of my daily ablutions. Instead, like many I use this time for scrolling through Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, and it appears this isn’t just a habit reserved for the toilet seat, with most of us scrolling at every downtime opportunity.
Smartphones, friend or foe?
Less time is spent pondering and reflecting. Our minds don’t get to wander so much anymore. US research shows people scroll on their devices for an average of 3.4 hours daily. These are people with jobs or full-time education.
I’m careful not to blame our problems on our beloved mobiles, since they give us constant access to so much cost and time-saving information, like finding better deals on holidays and energy companies, upskilling so we can help with the kid’s math homework, avoiding an expensive restaurant that serves awful food, you name it, they are there for us.
The perks of these smart devices are endless, but so is the research revealing the digital dark side. Jama Network found that regular digital use increases adolescents’ attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Other studies have shown a significant increase in anxiety and depression.
Multitasking is a Myth
Consider early human evolution; our brains were forced to stay sharp, releasing chemicals like cortisol and adrenalin to assist us in the face of danger. We were then rewarded with dopamine after a successful hunt or construction of weather-proof shelters. Most days would be focused on one or two activities. How amazing would that be?
Two thousand years on and we are so far removed from that life.On a daily basis, the 3 pounds of grey and white matter between our ears are bombarded with facts, pseudo-facts, jibber-jabber, and rumour, all posing as information. Our smartphones have become the ultimate multi-tasking tool allowing us to send emails while food shopping. We can book hotels and flights as we ride up an escalator, catch up with friends whilst unpacking the shopping, Christmas shop whilst arm-wrestling monkeys….. you get the idea!
Earl Miller, a prominent neuroscientist at MIT believes, “our brains are not wired to multitask well… When people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so”
Miller and other neuroscientists have found that multitasking increases the stress hormone cortisol and adrenaline, which causes overstimulation in the brain and a dopamine-addiction feedback loop. Scarily, this means we are rewarding our brains for losing focus in search of new and more exciting external stimulation.
Scientific research, movies, and even the people that built our modern technology are now waking up to the darker side of our evolutionary advancement. Aidan Truce, a prominent Google engineer, once posed the question to around 100 of his peers, asking them to raise their hands if they were happy with the technology they had unleashed on the world; no one put their hand up.
Another advocate of this ‘technology disaster’ is Tristan Harris, an ex-Google engineer who suggests we have upgraded technology and downgraded humans.
Johan Hari completed a worldwide three-year journalistic investigation into this impeding global ‘pandemic’ and wrote the book ‘Stolen Focus,’ where he shares his grapples with losing focus. He interviews experts across the globe who reveal alerting revelations.
We know it isn’t realistic for us to ditch our smartphones or disengage from social media. Still, we must find ways to redress the balance to bring us back to a state we once were, patiently and singularly hunting, gathering, or constructing. This blog offers several ideas to recapture your focus and unleash your creative potential.
5 Ways to Regain Focus
1. Let’s start with some good old fashion physical control. Prep your environment accordingly.
No phones in the bedroom at bedtime. This is particularly important for teenagers. An alarm clock makes a lovely birthday gift and puts an end to the excuse, ‘I need my phone to wake me up’ argument. Leave the charging cable in another room and let ‘it’ get some restorative sleep. If you need the phone nearby to take emergency calls, then at least put it out of reach, across the other side of the room. In the case of teenagers, remove! Eliminate scroll time before sleep time and avoid the ‘blue light’ disruption to the brain wave cycle.
After seven years of teaching in Further Education and coming face to face with drawn, tired faces each morning, the greatest and probably most unappreciated gift is to remove the temptation altogether. I often set activities that included the students openly sharing their daily average screen time usage (go to settings, and you’ll find the screen time setting to reveal this mostly shocking information). Students averaged 8 hours a day! Parents of young adults need to keep an eye on this phone metric.
It’s worth noting your screentime and designating a slot or two in your day for social media scrolling so that you can resist the temptation to scroll outside these slots. Ideally, this means turning off the very thing that rewired your brain in the first place, ‘Notifications.’ That seemingly harmless little buzz with a new piece of info has built a new habit in your brain to make you check your phone, and now you do it without prompts.
2.Swap scroll time with board games or a puzzle, anything that encourages singular focus and perhaps some teamwork.
Venture out for a stroll instead of a scroll. There is no rule that says one person should walk the dog, or that you even need a dog to take a walk.
Bring back classic board games like monopoly, Trivial Pursuit and Jenga, or start a family book club where everyone reads for an hour or so each evening. Reading positively impacts brain development and promotes focus while giving you a creative workout.
If you watch a Harry Potter film, your brain is treated to some sensory lobster and caviar (if you love the films), but read the book, and the right side of your brain is challenged to a higher degree as it attempts to build the picture in your head and relies upon your knowledge to understand the complexities of the relationships and unfold the storyline all the while anticipating what happens next. This boosts your imagination, encouraging creativity and innovative thinking.
Imagine a world where people are scrolling instead of reading, scanning large quantities of disjointed and often fake information. What type of population are we encouraging in our future?
3. Back to nature – In 1836 Ralph Waldo Emerson said “I feel that nothing can befall me, which nature cannot repair”. This was said before scientists discovered that trees release antimicrobial essential oils called phytoncides into the atmosphere, which are believed to boost mood and immune system function, lower blood pressure, heart rates, and stress and anxiety.
Research has even shown that substituting the company of Netflix for the company of trees improves sleep and increases creativity!
In 1982, the Japanese government introduced a concept known as shinrin yoku, or “forest bathing”, encouraging its citizens to head for the trees and use the country’s 3,000 wooded miles for some much-needed mental restoration. Roger Ulrich conducted research in 1984 at a Philadelphia hospital and found that patients who had views of nature from their hospital window recovered sooner and reported lower depression rates.
Suggestion – Pre-prepare a packed ‘dinner’ to return to one evening and head to your local forest or woodland area with a picnic blanket. Choose a day that is particularly challenging and use the evening to simply sit and absorb the nature around you.
Have a smartwatch? Turn off the notifications but monitor your heart rate before and after; you might be surprised!
4. Exercise – physical activity is an excellent tonic for improving concentration and boosts your mood, memory, and motivation by increasing dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin levels.
A review published in Translational Sports Medicine that covered 13 studies, including ten years’ worth of data, concluded that moderate and high-intensity exercise improved memory, problem-solving, and concentration. Exercise carried out for up to an hour had an immediate positive effect lasting up to two hours.
One of the co-authors of the review, Peter Blomstrand, concluded: “Exercise makes you smart.”
Multiple studies have shown how exercise increases blood flow to the brain, increasing neuroplastic function in the hippocampus; boosting memory. Research among children shows that exercise leads to decreased grey matter – the thickness in the superior frontal cortex, which increases mathematical ability. It also releases endorphins which is the feel-good chemical for the brain. Runners call this “runner high.” Even low-intensity exercise like walking briskly in a forest releases a protein called neurotrophic, causing nerve cells to grow and make new connections, and the boost to overall brain function significantly impacts concentration.
5. Meditation reduces stress– researchers and meditation practitioners have long reputed the benefits of regular meditation, from stress reduction, anxiety control, and enhanced self-awareness to reduced age-related memory loss.
Anthony Zanesco, a psychologist at the University of Miami and lead author of one of the most extensive longitudinal studies on how meditation impacts the brain, said their study “offered evidence that intensive and continued meditation is associated with enduring improvements in sustained attention.”
An initial finding from the study revealed that the training enhanced participants’ emotional well-being and led them to perform better on tasks related to focus and sustaining attention. Seven years later, all test group members reported continued meditation, and the test continued to show improvements in their focus and overall mental well-being.
In his study of 21 Buddhist monks, Researcher Richard Davidson discovered increased and sustained levels of the Gamma brainwave frequency. This frequency is associated with peak mental condition, peak concentration, and high levels of cognitive functioning.
Usually, people slip in and out of Gamma for a fraction of a second, but the Yogis (Monks) achieved Gamma waves for a full minute owing to prolonged periods of meditation. In a nutshell, most studies on meditation and concentration show a positive correlation, but building a habit of meditation is not easy for many of us!
Making Meditation a Habit
Performance Meditation allows you to select the components of the meditation that suits you, encouraging frequent meditation. You are more likely to achieve meditation efficiently, bringing you into a deeper state with the added benefit of guided visualisation to enhance any chosen performance.
From improving your golf swing, overcoming performance nerves, shyness around a love interest, public speaking, exam preparation, and much more, all with the added mental and physical well-being that comes with regular meditation, such as improved concentration levels. Start designing your meditation now!
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