Button TextButton Text
Download the asset

Attention Span in the Digital Age

Attention Span in the Digital Age

This week our guest is Dr. Gloria Mark, who is Chancellor's Professor of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine. In addition to having a PhD in psychology and acting as a visiting senior researcher at Microsoft since 2012, Gloria has recently authored the book Attention Span, which will release on January 10th, 2023.

In this conversation, we explore many different facets of attention, including but certainly not limited to how our attention span is decreasing, how technology is shaping our attention habits, the consequences of a struggling attention span, and many different solutions that we might consider to take back control of our attention.

You can find Gloria's book Attention Span at Amazon and in most bookstores.


Host: Steven Parton - LinkedIn / Twitter

Music by: Amine el Filali


Gloria Mark [00:00:01] I agree that tech companies are trying to hijack our attention. But I will say it's not just tech companies. There are. There's so many other things that are built into our culture and society that affect our attention. 

Steven Parton [00:00:33] Hello everyone. My name is Steven Parton and you are listening to the feedback loop on Singularity Radio. This week our guest is Dr. Gloria Mark, who is the Chancellor Professor of Informatics at UC Irvine. In addition to having a Ph.D. in psychology and acting as a visiting senior researcher at Microsoft since 2012. Gloria has recently authored the book Attention Span: A Groundbreaking Way to Restore Balance, Happiness and Productivity, which will be released on January 10th, 2023. As you might expect in this conversation, we therefore explore many different facets of attention, including but certainly not limited to how our attention span is decreasing, how technology is shaping our attentional habits, the consequences of a struggling attentional capacity, and many different solutions that we might consider to take back control of our attention. And so now I'll hold no more of your attention with this introduction. So everyone, please welcome to the feedback loop. Dr. Gloria. Mark. Well, as I mentioned before, one of the reasons I wanted to talk to you specifically was I personally like to read a lot of books on technology's relationship with the human experience, with the human condition. And I continually came across your name in multiple books and felt like I needed to look deeper. And you, conveniently enough, have a book coming out called Attention Span Finding Focus and Fighting Distraction. And I'd love to know a little bit about the background that prepared you for that book and what motivated you to write it.

Gloria Mark [00:02:19] Yeah. So actually, you know, I was motivated out of my own personal experience as opposed to being motivate, motivated by something, you know, intellectual concern that I had from reading literature. I, I used to work in Germany and I worked at a research institute, which at that time was called the GMT, German National Research Institute for Information Technology. And now it merged with Fraunhofer, which people might be more familiar with. And at the time, as a researcher, I viewed it as a life of luxury. I could just focus on a research project. And what was also very unique was that in Germany, the main meal of the day is called Midtown Gadson, which is the main meal. It's a nice, long, hot lunch, and my colleagues and I every day would go and have this nice, long, hot lunch and then take a 20 minute walk around the campus. It was called a Roland in German. Then I started as an academic in the U.S. in 2000. This is when the digital age was really taking off. And all of a sudden I'm an academic and I'm working on multiple projects and writing grants and mentoring students, teaching classes, sitting at committees. And I just found my attention being it was like whiplash, you know, I had to take care of so many different things. And my lunchtime practice changed radically. So all of a sudden between classes, I would run to buy lunch, take out, raise back to my office. I'd walk down this long corridor and I'd look in at all the open offices of my colleagues and see everyone sitting behind their computers eating lunch. I would, you know, slide into my seat. And there I was in back of my computer doing exactly the same thing. And I noticed that I was getting more and more glued to my computer, and at the same time, I was having a harder time focusing on any particular screen on that computer. And so I began to talk to other people, and other people were reporting similar kinds of experiences. And so then the scientist in me kicked in and I thought, you know, maybe I should study this empirically to see to what extent our people are having trouble focusing. You know, is is this a real phenomenon? And that's what kickstarted my my journey in studying attention span. 

Steven Parton [00:05:20] And from all of that empirical work and the recent research that you've done for the book, what are some of the key things that you realized that made you think, okay, this is a real problem, this there's something going on here worth talking about. What was that thing that you noticed? 

Gloria Mark [00:05:38] Yeah. So the first thing was that we we measured empirically how long people's attention was on any particular screen. And we did this in people's real world work environments and life environments. So, you know, usually, as you know, in psychology, you bring people into a laboratory. But we actually went into people's real world environments. And the thing that really struck me and surprised me was how the first time that we were able to measure attention spans empirically was 2004. And we found that people spent two and a half minutes on any screen before switching. At that time, we were astounded. And we found that people switched any activity in the workplace every 3 minutes we would. It was very similar. Primitive at the time, but we would take stopwatches and we would shadow people and we would measure every single activity they did. When they switched their screens, we would use a stopwatch. And I'd found over the years that our attention spans have been shrinking. And in the most recent years, I would say in the last five years, and it's not just my work. Other people also have been tracking attention spans, seems to have reached an average of about 47 seconds on the screen before switch. And that's the average. The median is 40 seconds. And so when you think about it with a median, half the time, people's attention is shorter than 40 seconds. So attention spans are shrinking. I have been over the last two decades and this is this struck me as just surprising. And that set off a whole research trajectory for me to try to figure out is, is this healthy? Yeah. Are people being stressed? What is it about the use of our devices that makes it so hard for us to focus? 

Steven Parton [00:08:02] Yeah, it may feel like an obvious question, but I'm going to ask it anyway. But what is the problem with the shrinking attention span? Because I think, you know, a lot of people I talk to and some people who would be, I guess, antagonistic to your viewpoint would argue, yeah, well, everyone said, you know, the Greeks said that when people stopped memorizing things and started writing things down and when we started getting newspapers and books and then when we started getting, you know, TVs and radios, everyone's always said we're losing our attention. It's going to be a problem. But we've been fine. But what what would you say is the problem with this attention span being reduced so drastically down to 40 seconds? And technology's role in that. 

Gloria Mark [00:08:48] Yeah. So when you when you open up the minds black box. Well here's here's a metaphor for what's happening. Think of it as people having an internal whiteboard that represents the task they're doing. And every time you switch content on your screen or you switch topics, think of it as erasing that internal whiteboard and rewriting on it. And when you switch rapidly, you know, imagine erasing, rewriting, erasing, rewriting your mind has to process different content very quickly. I agree with you. You know, historically, yes, people have switched their attention, but the digital age has accelerated the switch with with all the content that's being offered to us. And, you know, maybe we can talk a little bit more about all the other forces that exist in society that also spurs on to switch our attention. 

Steven Parton [00:09:55] Yeah, definitely. We'd love to get to momentarily. And can you say more about that in regards to the maybe the impacts? Because I know from your book and in your research, a lot of the times all of this multitasking that we're doing and and this quick attention switching that we think makes us really productive is not actually improving our productivity in any way, shape or form. 

Gloria Mark [00:10:21] That's right. We we we think we're doing more when we multitask, but the research shows that we're actually doing less. And so there have been a number of studies that have been done in the laboratory examining what happens when people multitask. So first of all, performance suffers. So that's that's a very common finding, very consistent. Number two, stress increases. So blood pressure has been shown to rise the the secretion of the stress hormone, cortisol increases. And then from a subjective perspective, people consistently report feeling stressed, burnt out, exhausted when they multitask. You know, when you go back and think about, you know, the idea of switching these these internal whiteboards, you can also think that people have this limited capacity for attentional resources. And, you know, we we start off the day, if you're lucky, to have a good night's sleep, you start off the day refreshed and then slowly these resources deplete. They deplete for a lot of reasons, but when you multitask, you know, that really depletes them quite fast, especially when you think about keeping up with the content that you're trying to process. There was content you just looked at that interferes with what you're doing right now. There's a there's a lot going on behind the scenes that then leads to stress and poor performance. 

Steven Parton [00:12:13] Yeah. And when I think of kind of the opposite of that maybe multitasking, fragmented form of thinking. I think of flow now, the way we can get into flow is that you can maybe mention a little bit more about what flow is for those who might not be familiar. But what I found really interesting about your work is you point out that it's a myth that we should seek flow in our technique, in our digital interactions, that that's actually not maybe realistic, especially in the knowledge domain. So could you talk a bit about flow and why that myth exists? 

Gloria Mark [00:12:47] Yeah, so so flow, this is the the concept that was described by me how you should somehow you it's a beautiful concept. It's the idea that there are some things that we can be so immersed in and we're so involved in that we we lose touch with the passage of time. And it's when we're in our it's an optimal state for us. We can be highly creative. You know, we that's where the term flow. You feel like you're just in the flow. Okay. I should mention before I became a scientist, I actually started out as an artist. So I have a degree in fine arts and I used to experience flow quite a bit. You know, especially if I worked through the night, I could get into flow. And it's not hard for people who work in the arts, a musician, someone who maybe does carving, you know, someone who has a hobby that they're really engrossed and it's it's not hard for them to achieve flow. But in our knowledge, work day to day knowledge work, we find that because of the nature of our work, it's quite rare for people to experience flow. You can be focused, but not necessarily in a flow state. And when you're focused, you know, you have to use sustained attention. Sometimes you have to put in the effort to to keep that attention sustained. But it's it's not it's not a flow state. Now, people who do complex coding can can get into flow. They've reported that someone who plays video games on the computer could get into flow. But for the vast majority, the majority of us who, you know, we write reports, we do calculations on spreadsheets, we answer e-mail, and you might do creative things like I might write a book chapter and find a creative, but it's that flow, right? I'm using focused attention and that's different. 

Steven Parton [00:15:17] Do you think that that is particularly alarming, maybe the fact that so many people in the modern, you know, world of work aren't accessing flow, is that maybe a negative thing? 

Gloria Mark [00:15:31] Well, I would say it's it's not necessarily negative if you can find another outlet through which you can experience flow. So I know things that I can do to experience flow, right. If I don't do so much art these days. But I know if I did, I could get myself in flow or dancing could get me into flow. But I am very realistic and I know that if I have to write and do hard work, it involves a lot of thinking. Probably I'm not going to get into flow. And, you know, it's we've looked at hundreds of people in the workplace and except for the complex coding and video king scenarios that I talked about, it's pretty rare for people to report getting it to flow. Sometimes I will say sometimes at a meeting you're in a creative brainstorming session with other people. You might feel like you're in flow. 

Steven Parton [00:16:40] Yeah. Like a group. Flow from the dynamics. Yeah. Have you looked into at all the long term impacts of of being in flow more often or being distracted? And I guess what I'm alluding to here is if we are reducing our attention span down to 40 seconds and we're doing this constant kind of jerky attention, I think you call it kinetic attention. Yeah. Are we wiring our brain to operate in that same jerky kinetic way when we're not in front of a screen? Is our default changing to to a changing to become that that way as well? 

Gloria Mark [00:17:18] Yeah, I think I think we can expect that this is what's happening. Mm hmm. And for example, I mean, there are things activities we do outside of our computers and phones where people do have short attention spans. And, for example, in, you know, the broader media industry, film and TV screen shots are quite short. These which every 4 seconds on average. And when we're exposed to these kinds of short content switches, right, our attention is changing. We're processing content differently. But it it has to affect us because we spend so many hours a day in front of our computers and phones. Right. It would be hard hard to believe that we're not affected, that we're not conditioned to have short attention spans and other things as well. 

Steven Parton [00:18:23] Yeah. And in the broader context, you mentioned before, I'd like to go back to some of the other things that kind of push us into this attentional issue, things like culture, stress, environment, maybe let's just start with stress because I think that's such a pertinent one. What are some of the ways that stress impacts our relationship with our attention and technology, for that matter? 

Gloria Mark [00:18:47] Yeah. So it's really interesting. It's, it's cyclic. So we can do things on our devices that increase stress, such as multitasking, experiencing interruptions. And it turns out that we're just about as likely to interrupt ourselves as we are to be interrupted from some external stimulus like phone call or notification. And so when stress when stress increases, right. As a result of things we're doing on our devices. Stress, in turn, makes it harder to focus. Mm hmm. Because let's take the case of neuroticism, which is a personality trait. And roughly, you know, half the population would be considered to be neurotic because that's the way, you know, psychology, that's the way personality tests are constructed so that half the people would score above the median. What do neurotics do? They tend to replay events over and over in their minds. I do. I know that. I do. You know, you might have done something or I had a conversation. And you keep replaying that in your mind that gets you stressed. Mm hmm. And there could be all kinds of triggers that lead you to replay these scenarios, even if you're not neurotic. There's all kinds of triggers we experience when we're on our devices. There could be unfinished tasks that become a trigger that cause stress. You know, I talked about interruptions. There could be some negative emotional experience that you have. Say through email or slack or someone is demanding work of you. This leads to stress. And then in turn, it affects your ability to concentrate and focus. So going back to what I initially said, it's cyclic. Mm hmm. There's an economist. Think of it as spiraling downhill throughout the day. As you get more stressed, makes it harder to focus, your attentional resources are depleting. And then it's it's really hard to have. 

Steven Parton [00:21:22] Have you looked into the attentional restoration theory at all by Kaplan and Kaplan? Are you familiar with their work? Now. It just makes me think of what you're talking about, basically. They've done a lot of the work on how nature kind of rejuvenates your attentional resources, how, you know, if you're doing a sustained attention task and then you take a walk, you know, park or something and come back, you'll be better than if you walk through a city. It's just making me think. I was just curious if you had explored that at all, because it makes me think that as we navigate our urban environments with cars and people everywhere and all the sharp edges and, you know, a dearth of green space that our brains are constantly trying to inhibit all these different stimuli that are coming at us and we're draining those attentional resources that you talked about. 

Gloria Mark [00:22:15] Yeah, actually, I do know that work that that work is done by other researchers where they found it a mere 20 minute walk in nature can can restore people's resources. I did a study. At Microsoft Research with Abdul Abdullah, who also showed that a 20 minute walk in nature can result in people being significantly more creative. So there are there are certainly benefits to that. Now, whether being in nature versus being in a city, I, I don't know. You know, my sense is that it's going to be beneficial to take a walk anywhere, right? To get yourself away from the computer will replenish you. Now, you know, I suppose it depends on what the urban environment is like. If there's a lot of noise, if you're frustrated because you can't cross the street from traffic. I mean, those things can impact your your ability to replenish for sure. 

Steven Parton [00:23:35] Yeah. Well, let's maybe jump to a different environment, the abstract environment. What about culture? How do you think that maybe culture in general is impacting our relationship? And I guess this could be anything from the economic expectation that you're going to work 9 to 5, you know, or some impetus or expectation that you're going to answer your phone within 20 minutes of getting a text. You know, and that's just the expectation as a social contract. Can you talk a little bit about these kind of things? 

Gloria Mark [00:24:05] Yeah, I think that we have our culture has evolved, especially in the digital age where we have expectations that we will be very productive, whatever productivity refers to. And so we push ourselves. You know, there is this expectation that computers and phones have extended our capabilities to be productive and so therefore more is expected of us managers expect more of employees and so they delegate more work. Yet delegating more work and sending more messages is actually making us less productive because we have to deal with those messages. So there is most certainly a culture of trying to squeeze out every last productive juice out of us, and we should schedule our time down to the minute so we can try to do as much as possible in as short a period of time. And of course, because we have devices, we should be able to do that. Most certainly there is there, as you talked about, the the social influence. Mm hmm. There is a very, very strong social influence that also compels us to multitask in the sense that. People want to accumulate social capital. And social capital is the trading of favors of resources. So I'm going to answer your email because I expect someday you're going to answer mine and I'm going to do you a favor, because at some point I would expect you'll do one for me. And the whole Internet is a marketplace of social capital. Social capital was traded all the time. And so we answer email, we jump to answer email and slack and even social media, because we want to build up our social capital resources. So that's that's one aspect. Another thing is power. We're very much influenced by power. We respond to messages from people who are more powerful than us. People on social media want to accumulate power and maintain power. You do this through followers. And so power is also another driver of our attention. And of course, there's there's social influence people, there's identity. People want to maintain identities, whether it's a work identity or other kind of social identity on the Internet. And so they spend a lot of time and spend a lot of effort into maintaining identity. 

Steven Parton [00:27:12] You talk about attention traps, and I believe one of the attention traps that you talk about is identity. And I'd love to know what you think about how attention comes into that. Is it is it just the fact that we want so deeply to craft our persona in this digital space, that we end up coming back to that digital space, constantly making it salient to our attention so that we can be mindful of how we're shaping it. 

Gloria Mark [00:27:39] Exactly. Exactly. I mean, it's it's how we present ourselves to the world. And, of course, we have this huge arena that we're presenting ourselves to. And so we're constantly thinking about how can we refine our identity, right? This is what we want the world to see in us. And so, you know, and of course, it affects some people more than others. If, for example, if you're an influencer, you're going to be thinking a lot about crafting and maintaining your identity. And so this can, of course, interfere with other things that we're trying to do. But everyone, to some extent, everyone who's using the Internet, almost everyone is thinking to some extent about the identity that they want to present. Yeah. Right. Yeah. 

Steven Parton [00:28:32] How do we I guess I don't want to go too deep into solutions at this point, and I know it's a must. If you had solutions, you get the Nobel Prize. So I don't expect real answers here. But with something that is so salient to us evolutionarily, you know, the desire to fit in, the desire to belong and the desire to have this identity, this social validation and status game that we play, like you said, with power and how we respond to people. It seems that the digital landscape is just streamlined, optimized, optimized space for us to do that in. And so how do we back ourselves out of that space when it is the perfect vehicle to do the thing we're very much wired to do? 

Gloria Mark [00:29:17] Yeah, that's it's it is a great question. So, I mean, there's a lot of things that we can do. And I do talk about that in my book. I mean, what are the things that we can do is what I call practice awareness. And this refers to the bed awareness means being aware of what you're doing in the present. There are so many things we do when we're on our devices that are automatic and that are habitual, and we will respond to an email notification or we're just driven to go to social media, as you point out, by our social urges and social curiosity. But if we can practice meta awareness, we raise these automatic actions to a conscious level. We can start questioning ourselves. And that's what I do. I practice meta awareness. When I have an urge to go to social media, I'll ask myself, What's the reason I want to go there? Do I need to go there now? What's my level of cognitive resources? Do I need a break? Is the reason I'm going there to take a break. Okay. If that's. If that's it, that's that's fine. But you can simply become much more aware of what you're doing, and it can help you curtail some of these urges. 

Steven Parton [00:30:50] It feels like to do that, we might need to address that cycle you talked about earlier, which is the stress, right? Because I feel like if you're stressed, you start to lose access to that mindfulness a little bit, right. So are like stressed practices, actually attention practices in a lot of ways? 

Gloria Mark [00:31:09] I think so. I do think so. And I think that if you can begin to understand the things that you're doing when you're online and especially what are you doing that's making you stressed? And of course, the the underlying thing is to become aware of your level of cognitive resources. So in the book, I use this metaphor of thinking of a tank. You have your own personal gas tank resources and becoming a. Where of where your level is at. And if the problem is that people let themselves get too drained before they realize, Oh my God, I'm so stressed, I need to step away and take a break. But you have to act before you get to that point, right? Before you're completely drained and you want to be proactive and be thinking about what you're doing and be aware of your resources so that you know, hey, it's time for me to pull back. I'm starting to feel a little bit drained. Let me pull back now. Let me replenish. And you continually ask yourself, you know, what am I doing? What can I do to make myself to build back up my resources? Now, you know, it might seem a little bit hard to do it first, but if you practice it, it becomes very natural. And it's it's become second nature to me when I'm on my devices. Now, I admit I'm a professional observer of people. Right? That's that's what I do for a living. But I have learned to become a professional observer of myself. So it's about developing an analytical and objective mindset about yourself and about your actions. And if you keep and the the exercise, if you will, to get you to do that is by asking herself these questions. So if you if you practice mindfulness, I know a lot of people practice mindfulness. It's about focusing on some physical aspect of yourself. You focus on breathing or you focus on sounds or focus on your feelings in your body and it gets you to brings you to the present. It's a similar idea when you're on your device. It's, it's, it's getting your awareness to become much more conscious so that you can analyze what you're doing and then you can make more intelligent decisions about how to use her devices. 

Steven Parton [00:34:09] One one thing about that that I believe I talked to Nir. I have about his he he has this idea and I believe you know Johann Hari and in focus kind of criticizes it and says you know, there's this cruel optimism mentality which basically says, you know, you can just choose not to do these things. You can have the self-awareness. I'm not saying you're doing this, but, you know, it's kind of this luxury of mental awareness to be able to do this. But there's obviously this manipulate, manipulative side of things, right? There's this attention economy that hires psychologists who are literally paid to figure out how to grab your attention. You know that this isn't conspiratorial. We just know this is what happens, right? How do you kind of navigate that desire to manifest your self-awareness against this artillery barrage of PhDs who are there trying to work against you? 

Gloria Mark [00:35:11] Yeah. Yeah. Well, first of all, let me say that I think I agree that tech companies are are trying to hijack our attention. But I will say it's not just tech companies, though. There's there's so many other things that are built into our culture and society that that affect our attention. So it's tech companies are just one part of it. Yeah. And, you know, I talked about film and TV. There is the design of the Internet itself. There is our our social natures, there is personality, there's emotional influence that things on the Internet have for us. There's so many other things. But I'm a big fan of the psychologist Albert Bandura, who has spent his career studying self efficacy and how people can develop agency. And he has shown success in so many different areas. For example, stopping smoking. And so I, I am optimistic that people can achieve agency. It's, you know, if we're just completely at the mercy of tech giants and, you know, how they're manipulating our attention. You know, I would have no faith at all in what we're doing. But I do think that human beings do have the ability to develop agency. We're not just complete pawns that, you know, people are intelligent, they can change and they can develop agency. And there is there are very specific steps you can do. You know, I mentioned the Met awareness is just one step, but there are there's other steps. I'm you know, I can talk about those as well. 

Steven Parton [00:37:21] If you if you'd like to touch on another one. I mean, yeah, I'd be happy to hear some of the other thoughts that you have if you're open to sharing. 

Gloria Mark [00:37:27] Sure. So another another thing you can do is, is practice forethought. And what that means is that when you take an action, you imagine how it's going to affect you in the future. And that future could be in a few hours or could be at the end of the day. And so if I'm going to play a mindless game, which, by the way, mindless games are not necessarily bad for us, they can help us replenish. Before I started, I tried to envision what my end of the day is like. I want to go to sleep relatively early and at the same time there's things I need to finish by the end of the day. So before I pick up that mindless game, I, I imagine what my end of the day will look like. I want to be in bed having to sleep. And so that's going to stop me from picking up that game. There's there's another, another technique we can practice, which is keeping your goals in mind now. Goals direct our attention. We pay attention according to what our goals are. If my goal is to write a book chapter or to write a report, that's where I direct my attention to. If my goal is to relieve boredom, then I'm going to go to a news site or social media, right? So goals are really important. It's it's a very basic part of our attention. And so a lot of what happens is that we let our goals slip. And you might start the day writing your goals on a piece of paper, but it's not enough. We have to continually restate, reaffirm our goals, keep them in our conscious nest. There is different ways you can do it. Sure, you can write them down. You can visualize your goals concretely. Not lead, not keep them abstract, but make them very concrete. So, for example. I need to finish writing something by the end of the day, and I actually spend a minute or so visually visualizing what that looks like. And if I can visualize it and make it concrete, it's a lot easier to keep that in mind. Goals are an arm. They're they're a shield against distractions. And any time you're you lose sight of your goals, you are just susceptible to having some distraction come and pierce through your attention. 

Steven Parton [00:40:22] Yeah. I don't want to make any broad judgments of society here, but I think when you're talking about this of a Gallup poll, I believe I read where something like 87% of people have basically no enthusiasm for the work they do. It's they're either just apathetic or they actively hate the work that they do. And it makes me think that one of the reasons maybe we get into this, I don't want to say addictive necessarily, but we get into this cycle of distraction is maybe just boredom. Like we just have a lot of people not doing things that they enjoy. So can you can you talk about that at all? Is there something about the beyond just the goal aspect but the interest? Like how interested we are in something? Does that affect how deeply we are going to stay engaged with it versus how distracted will become? 

Gloria Mark [00:41:13] Yes, you are exactly right. And in my research, we discovered that there are different types of attention. So the common narrative is that there's two states of attention. You're focused or on focused. And we found that there are different types of boredom. This is a state of attention when you're you're not challenged and you're not engaged. Wrote attention is a kind of attention where you're engaged in something, but you're not at all challenged. You're playing you're going on social media. You're playing solitaire. And so if you're experiencing rote or bored attention, you are much more susceptible to distractions because you don't have strong goals that can shield you. Now, you know, with rote attention, you're you're playing Candy Crush. Okay. So you do have a goal and that might protect you from being distracted by something else if you're really engaged in that. But when you're bored, we have absolutely no defense against distractions. And we showed empirically that when people are in this bored state, they're much more likely to be distracted by it, by some kind of interruption. 

Steven Parton [00:42:45] Yeah. Maybe go in the other direction here a little bit. Can you talk a bit about maybe ADHD and how that has been something that has seemed to be rising drastically over the last few decades? Is that something that you think is related to technology or is that maybe just an improvement of diagnostic measures or less stigma in mental health? 

Gloria Mark [00:43:10] So I actually was very interested in this question, and so I did some digging to look at what the prevalence of ADHD is. And I found the best study I found was a review that was done in 2021 of 40 studies, and it was conducted with over 107,000 individuals, and it found the prevalence of ADHD among adults to be 4.6%. And then another study that I found to be quite good was that among us children and adolescents, ages 2 to 17. There was a survey done in 2016 of over 50,000 households that revealed that 8%, 8.4% of this age group was diagnosed have ADHD. Now, of course, you know, the numbers of if we look at the adults, 4.6%, you know, that's you know, that's maybe not as alarming as we thought it would be. I don't know to what extent. 4.6% is because of improved diagnoses or greater awareness in the public because of this. But we cannot tie this. We cannot make any kind of causal connection. Between ADHD and the use of our devices. Right. To make any kind of causal connection, we'd have to do an empirical study where people were tracked over the years where we've looked at usage of their devices. We cannot make any kind of causal connection or claims. But I will say that the phenomenon that we've found in our empirical research is that this kind of fast switching of attention, this kinetic attention, is found universally among a lot of people, people without ADHD diagnosis. And in the studies that we do, you know, we do give surveys to people. And we we can see if people fall in the extreme ends of these surveys to see whether they might their responses are associated with ADHD diagnoses. And we've rarely found people in our studies. So but yet we have found this kind of kinetic attention behavior. 

Steven Parton [00:46:05] Well, I guess for me, and I'm not sure if this is accurate, so I'll need to fact check this. But for my understanding with the right or I should say when you have attentional fatigue or let's say the cognitive load becomes too much for too long. I believe when you're let's say the gas tank is low, that you start to mimic some of the effects of of ADHD. Right. So even though it may not be a clinically diagnosable expression of ADHD, it seems that with enough attentional fatigue we show ADHD like behavior. Yes. Is that something you've heard as well? 

Gloria Mark [00:46:44] Maybe. Yes. I mean, it's it's it's what I've seen. Okay. Yeah. But that that's very different than an ADHD diagnosis because people who you know, I mean, it's it's a spectrum. And people who don't fall into the extremes, if they're if they're not fatigued, if they're replenished, they can have focus. Right. They're they're not experiencing this kind of kinetic type of attention. So it's something I think, you know, any anyone can experience this kind of this what you're calling mimicking symptoms of ADHD. Mm hmm. If you're if you're really just exhausted, mentally exhausted. But it does not mean you have ADHD, because all you need to do is get replenished. Right? Get a good night's sleep, take a nice long break, take a walk outside in nature and you can get back on track. Whereas someone with ADHD, you know, there are some things they can do, but they can't go back to or they can't achieve this kind of level of focus. 

Steven Parton [00:47:59] Right. That makes sense. It was we near the end here. I want to kind of get towards towards some of the solutions beyond what you already mentioned, which were fantastic. But I'd love to know if you think that there is a top down policy aspect to this that needs to take place. You mentioned a lot of the bottom up things, I think, which is the individual's mindfulness. But, you know, like in France in the book, you mentioned the right to disconnect law. I think if I'm correct, makes it basically illegal for employers to demand that they get a response after business hours. Are there things like that that you think need to happen or should happen to kind of change the environment or change your relationship with stress that could help the individual or kind of reclaim some of their attentional power? 

Gloria Mark [00:48:50] Absolutely. So I am a big fan of Right to disconnect laws. And it's here. New York City tried to introduce this a few years ago, but, you know, apparently it was not successful. But the right to disconnect protects workers. So it they are they will not experience repercussions for if they do not answer emails or slack messages after their work hours. So it gives them a chance to, you know, basically replenished and, you know, it ties into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, where people have a right to be able to relax and have leisure time without having to work all the time. I think that at the organizational, local organizations can do things. They can, for example, limit email to certain hours of the day. And this can help rewire expectations so that you're not if you're getting emails throughout the entire day. It creates habits to keep checking. Right. I talked about social capital. You want to make sure you have collect that social capital, so you want to respond fast. But if you know, email is only coming first thing in the morning, maybe it's coming after lunch. Maybe at the end of the day it's going to rewire your behavior. You're not going to be checking in between those times. And, you know, if you if you wait till the end of the day to answer email, why do problems are already solved? Right. So things that seem so urgent at the moment can easily resolve themselves by the end of the day. I do not believe that any individual can do this on their own. It's it's too big of a problem because for any individual to disconnect, you know, there's a lot of talk about, you know, take a detox. You know, unplug. I'm sure you can do this every so often, but it's not a permanent solution. And because we're we're too interconnected in this in this social web and any individual who disconnects penalizes themselves. Right. It just hurts the individual to to drop out. You're not you're not tied in to work communications. There's family and friends that you're not tied into. And so it's the solution has to be set at an organizational level for work or even at a societal level in terms of changing our expectations. 

Steven Parton [00:51:56] Yeah, well, beyond the the that those policy type changes. What is your thoughts about things just looking forward more broadly, what are your thoughts around maybe the future of technology and its relationship with attention? I know you have a chapter in the book about the the future of attention in this relationship. I believe you mentioned AI a fair bit in there as well. So as we look forward, are you optimistic about the direction we're going? Are you hopeful about certain technologies? Can you just kind of show us what your lens into the future looks like? 

Gloria Mark [00:52:33] I am optimistic about the future. So what I see happening is that people will have their own personal agents, which can help them manage the the the all the information that we're trying to get. And there have been attempts at developing personal agents. But I think we can do a lot better. And this is this is a personal agent that would serve as a coach to teach people. I don't see an agent. I don't see offloading all the work onto an agent because then the person themselves doesn't learn how to develop their own agency. And that's what it's all about. It's about developing your own agency to be a stronger person, to be more resilient when you use your devices. And a personal agent can understand your level of cognitive resources, it can learn is it can understand when it's time for you to take a break and pull back. It can understand, for example, the order in which you should be doing tasks so that you're not exhausting yourself. And, you know, because we're we're often pushed to do one hard task after another. And, you know, we we can't do that. We we need to be able to replenish. So I do see I do see a role in in AI working with us. But I also think it's very important for people to own their own data. Right. We can't let a a tech giant the data for this personal agent. We have to own it ourselves. Yeah. 

Steven Parton [00:54:24] It makes sense because I feels like the more data that people have on us, the easier it is to understand what's salient and the easier it is to snag our attention against our will. 

Gloria Mark [00:54:34] Yeah. 

Steven Parton [00:54:35] Well, on that note, Gloria, I think we're coming to time here, and I want to respect yours, but of course, I want to give you a chance to kind of tell us what's coming down the line, your book. I'm actually not sure I know when the release date is. So if you could maybe tell us that kind of information and where to find it, that would be wonderful. 

Gloria Mark [00:54:51] Yeah, absolutely. So the book is called Attention Span and it's published by Hanover Square, HarperCollins I the release date will be January 10th and it is available for preorder at your favorite online bookstore, Amazon, Barnes and Noble Books-A-Million or whatever your favorite place is. The book covers three major things. I mean, just briefly talk about the first is the empirical research that documents how short our attention spans are and that talks about the different kinds of attention that we experience. And it it also goes a little bit into the history of psychology as it relates to interruptions in multitasking. Talking about celebrities like Kurt Lewin and Bloom is iconic, if you're familiar with that. The second part of the book talks about all the societal forces that we experience that affect our attention. So you talked about the the forces that are working to find ways to get notifications to target our attention. Yes, targeted algorithms are certainly in the book, but I also talk about other societal forces, including the very design of the Internet itself. Right. Vannevar Bush, he was a visionary who designed the Memex, which later became the Internet design so that it could map so well onto how humans organize information in our minds, which is a semantic network. And it's of course, it worked beautifully and worked too well because it just grease the wheels for us to surf the Internet makes it too easy for us to surf the Internet and we go down rabbit holes. So that's an example, another example of a force. And then I talked about the emotions. Turns out our happiest state of attention is when we're doing this kind of road activity and, you know, mindless things. Why do we do it? It makes us happy. And that's also a pull on our attention. The last third of the book talks about the path forward. We talked about some of the I talked about some of the solutions here. There. There are other solutions as well. How you can design your day to be very clever so that you can not over exhausting your precious mental resources. And I even questioned whether people even have free will and the digital age, considering all these forces that are working in concert against our attention. And the answer is, it's a it's a modified yes, we have free will. And then the book ends with future solutions. 

Steven Parton [00:58:21] Wonderful. Well, I got a chance to read it and really enjoyed it, Gloria. So I appreciate you writing it and I appreciate you sharing your attention with us for this hour so we could chat about it. 

Gloria Mark [00:58:32] It was my pleasure. 


Singularity's team of internal thought leadership works to develop interesting resources, articles and insights about our core areas of expertise, programs and global community.

Download the asset