Jason JunJason Jun

Stolen Focus

Johann Hari

The attention problem is timely and engaging topic, but ironically, the book itself seemed to lack focus. I think the author could have made more realistic suggestions by focusing on the systemic side effects of social media. Attempting to tackle the broad issue of "attention" without clear boundaries probably made the book unfocused.

The current social media problems are complex and worth investigating deeply. However, the book diverges significantly, blaming increased information volume, reduced outdoor time for kids, nutrition, air quality, and even global warming. How can anyone come up with practical suggestions when the problem definition is this scattered?

Unsurprisingly, the book offered naive and overly simplistic suggestions, such as banning surveillance capitalism, making social media government-owned, and ending with yet another petition campaign.


I found strong evidence that our collapsing ability to pay attention is not primarily a personal failing on my part, or your part, or your kid’s part. This is being done to us all. It is being done by very powerful forces. Those forces include Big Tech, but they also go way beyond them. This is a systemic problem.

We need to deal with our attention problems before we try to achieve any other sustained goal.

The more information you pump in, the less time people can focus on any individual piece of it.

The scientists investigating this also discovered that if you make people read quickly, they are much less likely to grapple with complex or challenging material.

Slowness, he explained, nurtures attention, and speed shatters it.

“Your brain can only produce one or two thoughts” in your conscious mind at once. That’s it. “We’re very, very single-minded.” We have “very limited cognitive capacity.”

Roxanne showed me that if you stay awake for eighteen hours—so you woke up at 6 a.m. and went to sleep at midnight—by the end of the day, your reactions are equivalent to if you had 0.05 percent blood alcohol. She said: “Stay up another three hours, and you’re [the equivalent of being] legally drunk.”

When we sleep, our minds start to identify connections and patterns from what we’ve experienced during the day. This is one of the key sources of our creativity—it’s why narcoleptic people, who sleep a lot, are significantly more creative.

Reading books trains us to read in a particular way—in a linear fashion, focused on one thing for a sustained period.

When I was at Harvard conducting interviews, one professor told me that he struggled to get his students there to read even quite short books, and he increasingly offered them podcasts and YouTube clips they could watch instead. And that’s Harvard.

I like the person I become when I read a lot of books. I dislike the person I become when I spend a lot of time on social media.

In fact, when you look back over the history of science and engineering, many great breakthroughs don’t happen during periods of focus—they happen during mind-wandering.

“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.”

In situations of low stress and safety, mind-wandering will be a gift, a pleasure, a creative force. In situations of high stress or danger, mind-wandering will be a torment.

“One of my biggest learnings as a designer or technologist is — making something easy to use doesn’t mean it’s good for humanity.”

A major study asked white nationalists how they became radicalized, and a majority named the internet—with YouTube as the site that most influenced them.

With ADHD, there are no physical tests a doctor can carry out. All she can do is talk to the child, and to people who know the child, and see if the kid’s behavior matches a checklist drawn up by psychiatrists. That’s it.

It turned out their neurological status at birth didn’t help at all in predicting which kids would develop serious attention problems. So what did? They discovered that “the surrounding context is the most important thing,” Alan told me, and a crucial factor was “the amount of chaos in the environment.” If a child is raised in an environment where there is a lot of stress, they are significantly more likely to then develop attention problems and be diagnosed with ADHD.

Across the U.S. over the past decade, there have been many instances where people have seen children as old as nine walking unaccompanied in the street and they’ve called the police to report it as a case of parental negligence. But in the 1960s, this was the norm all over the world.

When a child plays, he learns the skills that make it possible to cope with the unexpected. If you deprive children of those challenges, as they grow up they will feel panicked and unable to cope a lot of the time.