More of life today is lived gazing into a screen than has ever been true—and the rest of life shrinks accordingly. But do we really want to have meetings where people surreptitiously tap away on texts; family time where no one talks lest they disturb everyone entranced by their various screens; romantic dinners where lovers gaze into their phones rather than each others eyes?
It has come to this because our attention has been seduced, stealthily and steadily, by ever more clever pulls away from the here and now—from work, from family, from partners. But we can enrich our lives by taking notice and taking control. Attention is both the problem and the solution.
There are two major attention systems: the “top-down” mind that manages our chosen focus, and the “bottom-up” mind that pulls our attention away from that focus. The screens that impinge on our lives do so by manipulating the bottom-up system.
The content that's most compelling for the bottom-up system triggers automatic systems in the brain for survival: for avoiding threats, for instance, or for sex. And between the news, video games, entertainment and advertising, those two categories cover much of the ground.
Try watching a cable news channel without the sound. Notice how compelling those images flit across the screen, changing constantly, ever-new? This captures the interest of yet another attention system that compels us to look at anything novel and surprising.
These two ways to make the brain focus where you want it are among a host of methods for taking advantage of weak spots in our attention; they apply insights from basic research on brain mechanisms of attention.
A mini-industry thrives by applying this research to designing ads. Because strong emotions hijack our attention, for instance, advertisers study how best to grab our emotions early in a message and hold it until their punch line.
This brain capture extends way beyond ads to our digital devices. As I type away on my computer, for instance, my email program gently nudges me by alerting me to a new message.
Because our attention can so easily be pulled away from what we want to focus on—our work, say, or the person in front of us—we need to me more intentional in taking back control. Here are some ways:
- Strengthen your brain’s circuits for focusing, and for catching you mind when it wanders off. Simple concentration exercises, like watching your breath and bringing your mind back whenever it wanders, create stronger connections in these attention networks.
- Make an explicit agreement to ignore tech intrusions. Some people now pile their cell phones in the middle of the table when they go out to dinner together; anyone who reaches for their phone before the bill comes has to pay it. A couple put their phones in a drawer when they get home from work. Some companies ban phones and such devices in meetings.
- Take control. There are apps that will turn off your Web browser and stop other interruptions for whatever length of time you designate—so you can get the work done that you need to, without distractions.
As Yoda says, “Your focus is your reality.” Let’s take charge of it.