Your Cart

The War for Our Attention and What it is Doing to Our Brains

The War for Our Attention and What it is Doing to Our Brains

The War for Our Attention and What it is Doing to Our Brains

| By Chris Krietchman

I was reading recently about some of the new research into attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and how some scholars believe it may be the result of a coping mechanism in our brains for information overload. Whether we suffer from ADHD or not, we are all getting much better at relating to the experience of being overloaded and overstimulated. Every day in our environment of hyper-consumption, hyper-consumerism and hyper-capitalism, our brains are bombarded with floods of new information, usually through social media and our smartphones.

The constant stream of information on social media and our phones can be overwhelming. It can be hard to know what to pay attention to, and it can be easy to feel like we are missing out on something ("FOMO" the fear of missing out). This can lead to stress, anxiety, and depression. The content on these platforms is designed to be addictive. Companies use algorithms to track our behavior and show us content that is more likely to keep us engaged. This can lead to us spending hours scrolling through our feeds, even when we don't really want to do so. No wonder some businesses have AI programs sifting through resumes and emails. To encounter reality these days is to be in need of curating it.

One of the big things that has shifted in recent years is who is doing this targeting and bombarding of our brains. It used to be that it was mainly the big corporations, the Coca-Cola’s and McDonalds of the world that could afford the expensive marketing campaigns, focus groups, advertising agencies and consultants necessary to entice, manipulate and sometimes hijack our neurological vulnerabilities. But in this day and age, it feels like everyone is their own promoter and marketing firm. Social media influencers, YouTube content creators, and even our friends and family on Facebook are becoming increasingly sophisticated attention-grabbers, whether they know search engine optimizations strategies or just how to caption a compelling photograph. Everyone is Don Draper and the messaging, campaigning and solicitation feels neverending.

The way we consume information on social media and smartphones is also different from the way we used to consume information in the past. Before the information revolution, when we watched a TV show or read a book, we were typically focused on one thing at a time. However, when we use social media or our phones, we are constantly bombarded with new information. This can make it difficult to focus on anything for very long. And this is fundamentally reshaping the way we operate and the way our brains themselves work.

The combination of these factors can have a negative impact on our brains and our attention spans. When we are constantly bombarded with information, our brains have to work harder to filter out what is important and what is not. This can lead to fatigue and burnout. Additionally, the constant switching between tasks can make it difficult for our brains to focus on anything for very long. This can lead to problems with memory, learning, and decision-making. Our shortened attention spans are also keeping us from holding simple conversations with other people. And unconsciously or subconsciously, we are not open to new relationships as it may just be too much to handle.

We are not taking this problem as seriously as we should be. Physiologically we are not designed to keep up with this level of technology and data. We simply cannot evolve that fast. And the proliferation of content that AI-based technology will seed is only going to generate more information and more overload. Even the mechanism designed to help us be more aware of this and of our vulnerabilities seem cruelly insufficient. Most smartphones now come with some kind of built-in app design to let you know exactly how much screen time you are spending on your phone, including down to the individual app or activity you are spending it on.

In some ways this reminds me of the way that cigarette companies were once required to put warning labels directly on their products, and even to pay for anti-smoking commercials. They were in effect advertising against their own very product on that product, but it still really didn’t matter. They still made millions. Our smartphones can point us to our problems, inform us that we spent seven hours on Instagram yesterday, but it doesn’t really change the fact that, like cigarettes, they are incredibly addictive, and no warning label or “screen time” tool is going to put a dent in that if we don’t commit ourselves to doing more.

How does this affect our human interactions? Do you think we can build better relationships when our devices have our complete and undivided attention? Ask yourself this question: Are you in a relationship with your phone and is that relationship getting in the way of you having real companionship with a living breathing human being?

But I’ve taken enough of your attention for now. Thank you for sharing it with me.