Stolen Focus by Johann Hari

Reviewed by E. B. Heath

Apparently, human brains are drowning in an ocean of distraction; our focus is being commandeered by modern technology.  For this reason, Johann Hari completely unhitched himself from the rigging of his digital life and sailed off to Provincetown, Cape Cod, to live as a pre-cyber-age man.  His goal was to salvage his attention span, so really his mind, and discover what is happening.

Stolen Focus is an extensively researched, well narrated report on Hari’s findings, detailing both problems and solutions.  Hari reconnoiters broadly covering individual and systemic issues that need attention.  To mention but a few issues: how technology tracks and manipulates users, surges in stress, exhaustion, ADHD, physical and psychological effects on children.  How reading a book printed on paper rather than on a screen is better for our deep understanding.   The following being a small sample on offer in Johann Hari’s must-read book.

Individually we need to: slow down, do only one thing at a time, and get more sleep.  Sounds simple, but not easy to achieve for those who are deeply connected to technology. Hari interviewed academics across the globe and presents their research that proves why we should pursue these goals. And scarily, what can happen if we continue to travel along the same trajectory.  There is for instance a link between lack of sleep and dementia.  Hari details three reasons why we need to urgently interrogate modern technology to understand what it is doing to our brains: our individual lives are diminished when we fail to achieve our aspirations; society suffers on many levels, not least of which is democracy when citizens cannot grapple with the issues at hand and resort to simplistic populist solutions; and, admitting there is a problem is the first step to finding solutions.  The first three chapters feature readable and convincing research on each of these three points.

A few surprising issues of interest popped up on the way, particularly multitasking.  As a compulsive multitasker, it was upsetting to find that multitasking is very much counter- productive.  Apparently, when you switch from task to task the brain goes through a process, albeit at speed, of reconfiguring.  This detracts from brain functioning at optimum level.  A fact proven by tests taken before and after multitasking is that IQ levels drop by ten points after a bout of multitasking.  This is shocking news for many professions that must of necessity be performing several tasks simultaneously.  Multitasking is also an enemy of creativity as it prevents the brain from making new connections.  So, focus is the key to better brain function. Being in the flow, in deep concentration, is akin to meditation.  Something artists of all genres experience, and athletes, who refer to it as being in the zone.  But, seemingly contradictory, is the fact that day dreaming, letting the mind wander where it will, also has great benefits for creativity.

Hari’s wide ranging research digs into the benefits of exercise particularly for children detailing how aerobic exercise expands the growth of the brain connections and chemicals, all of which improves self-regulation and executive functioning.

But when all said and done the odds are stacked against us because the very tool we depend on – the internet – is programmed to capture as much of our focus as possible.  A case of the medium becoming, if not the message, but definitely the director and stage manager of our attention.  Hari details how the internet is purposely designed to keep us in a ‘scroll down’ mode.  Human psychology being what it is tends to fixate on the negative.  This results in platforms presenting more and more extremism, keeping users on-line in a state of stressful outrage.  This suits tech giants’ bottom line at the expense of public mental health; furthermore, it is warping society’s political views.

The conclusion sums up neatly the central issues that Hari spells out in great detail, suggesting action that could be taken to counter the damage being done.

A worthwhile read on a subject that is slipping through the cracks of society – our ability to focus attention.

Stolen Focus

By Johann Hari


Bloomsbury Publishing


ISBN: 978 152662 016 3

$26.69; 340pp


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