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On attention

  • 28 June 2022
Every day is a battle waged for our attention. Last week, I watched an episode of a new ABC series Our Brain on the nature of consciousness and the effect our tech lifestyle is having on our intelligence.

Although painful at times, the revelations from Our Brain ring true. The most incisive perhaps is the degree to which social media has been successful in capturing our attention. According to Harvard University researcher Trevor Haynes, ‘when you get a social media notification, your brain sends a chemical messenger called dopamine along a reward pathway, which makes you feel good. Dopamine is associated with food, exercise, love, sex, gambling, drugs … and now, social media.’

Most of us spend between 3 and 6 hours on our phones each day, a sentence which, as recently as ten years ago, would have seemed absurd.

‘It's as if they’re taking behavioural cocaine and just sprinkling it all over your interface and that’s the thing that keeps you coming back and back and back’, former Mozilla tech engineer Aza Raskin said to the BBC in 2018. In 2006, Raskin designed the ‘infinite scroll’, a feature of many apps. ‘Behind every screen on your phone, there are generally like a thousand engineers that have worked on this thing to try to make it maximally addicting.’

MIT Professor of Neuroscience Earl K. Miller explains, ‘our brains evolved this thirst for knowledge, this desire to take in new information.’ And yet our brains are incapable of dealing with the constant rush of information coming at us. The more information we take in, ‘the worse our brain becomes,’ says Dr Sandra Bond Chapman, cognitive neuroscientist from the Centre for BrainHealth in Dallas. ‘More fragile, less dependable.’

The end result is addiction, sometimes intentionally in the case of Facebook and YouTube, and through these apps imitating the unpredictable reward ratio of poker machines, keep our attention and keep our minds functioning at a surface level.

'If our ability to empathise is affected, is there a moral imperative to pay attention to what we’re paying attention to, and adjust our lives accordingly?'

Luckily for us, the brain changes. The process of forming new synapses, strengthening existing ones and losing others continues throughout life. According to Dr Sandra Bond Chapman, ‘the brain is an engine that can constantly be upgraded, moment to moment by everything that you do.’

But as Our Brain reveals, neuroplasticity is a double-edged sword. Just as we can do