Why we struggle to pay attention

The trouble of focusing in a fractured world.

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It was as though she had developed a new superpower overnight. Food and rest – priorities of most 18-year-olds – no longer interested her. Instead, she would “study all night, then run ten miles, then breeze that week’s New Yorker”.

The science journalist Casey Schwartz, author of a new book, Attention: A Love Story, was only hoping to get through an essay crisis when she took her first Adderall, shortly after arriving at Brown University in 2000. But before long, the stimulant – intended for sufferers of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) – had become a part of her routine. “It was attention weaponised, slashing through procrastination and self-doubt, returning me to a place that felt almost like childhood, with its unclouded pleasures of rapt hours, lost in books and imagination,” she writes.

Throughout college, she bought Adderall on the campus black market or nicked it from bathroom cupboards; with nearly five million prescriptions written in the US, there were always pills circulating. After graduating and moving to Los Angeles, she googled “cognitive behavioural psychiatrist” and easily secured her own supply. Adderall served her well in her first job as a blogger, where her task was to publish several short posts a day: “to be quick and glib, and move on”. (Many of the young bloggers who set the tone of the early internet – and the pace that journalists still struggle to keep up with today – also relied on amphetamines. “We’re a drug ring, not a bunch of bloggers,” one writer for the gossip website Gawker said in 2007.)

Even while she enjoyed her heightened output, Schwartz knew, on some level, that the drug was blunting the parts of herself that, as a writer, she most wanted to access – the parts that were spontaneous and fun. After winning a coveted place in a creative writing class, she found it nearly impossible to complete the assignment. She sold a book proposal, but froze up every time she sat down to write; she had lost confidence in her ability to do the kind of deep, sustained work the project required, feeling instead as though she were “imprisoned in a joyless little cave of concentration”.

She suspected, too, that her personality was taking a hit. Her father complained that she was “unavailable” and “removed”. Periodically, she vowed to quit and flushed her stash of Adderall down the toilet, but within days – panicky and unproductive – her resolve would wane. She no longer trusted her own ability to pay attention. “I somehow needed to enter that state of hyperreality – heart rate elevated, peripheral  vision blurred, palms damp, mind strictly singular – in order to type sentences onto my computer screen.” By the time she finally enlisted the help of a psychiatrist and broke the cycle, she had spent 12 years in thrall to the drug and the chemically enhanced attention span it bestowed.

As Schwartz weaned herself off the drugs and readjusted to her natural rhythms, she began to wonder about the nature of attention itself. The resulting book is an antidote to the countless manuals devoted to attention-hacking and technology detox, the tired denouncements of our iPhone dependence. She concerns herself instead with more profound questions: what does it mean to pay attention? What deserves our attention, and how do we decide?

Schwartz is a diligent science reporter and her first stop is the lab, where she learns that the quality of our attention shapes not only our daily experiences, but how we will later remember them: “Interrupting someone’s attention by introducing a ‘secondary task’ (responding to a text message, for example) means this person will not ‘encode’ their present circumstance in all the rich, associative detail necessary for a memory to form and hang around a while.” She gathers intriguing tidbits but leaves unsatisfied; the predominant research paradigm calls for subjects to stare motionless at visual stimuli, a model she recognises as largely irrelevant to real life.

She turns instead to literature, philosophy and the softer strains of psychology. She immerses herself in David Foster Wallace’s famously dense, heavily footnoted Infinite Jest – a thousand-page novel that “moves in millimeters” – which demands, and rewards, hours of sustained focus. She meditates on Simone Weil, the ascetic French philosopher who wrote that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity”. She meets Gabor Maté, a Canadian addiction doctor who believes that attention deficit disorder has less to do with brain chemistry than with past traumas: “People who have found the present moment very painful – one way to cope with that is to scatter your attention.” I was most moved by her profile of an ageing psychoanalyst who spent ten years working with an aphasic patient capable of uttering only a few words, one of which was “laminada” – a “string of nonsense syllables”. Together, doctor and patient developed an intricate system of communication involving scribbles, body language, guesswork and – most of all – an extraordinary measure of attention.

Schwartz is aware of the challenges of building a narrative around such an all-encompassing topic: “One could begin virtually anywhere, and at any point in time, telling the history of attention: as meditation, as prayer.” But if her story sometimes meanders, lingering on whatever catches her attention, it is consistently interesting and beautifully written.

Towards the end of the book, Schwartz describes a moment that epitomised, for her, “the attentional paradox of all time”. It was November 2018, and the Woolsey wildfire was ripping through Southern California. Thirty miles to her west, people were fleeing for their lives, but in Los Angeles, it was just another Saturday afternoon. She and her fiancé, Josh, contemplated the smoky sky (“the sun blazing ominously from behind gauzy layers of orange brown”) and stopped at the drugstore for paper masks before carrying on with their plans: picking out wedding rings. At one point, winding their way through a farmers’ market, they looked up to see white ash falling from the sky. “Josh and I watched the shoppers and pedestrians continue their happy rounds, as if oblivious to the ash falling into their hair,” she writes. “This is the era to which we belong… we ban plastic straws and attempt to shame beef eaters. And we continue with our lives: we buy wedding rings… We continue to believe in the future, even while we know what we know. Our world is burning.”

Schwartz’s book, of course, printed months ago. Now our world is burning, and we doubt the future. Our lives have stopped; no one can shop for wedding rings any more.

In addition to our safety and social lives, the coronavirus has hijacked our attention: it is almost impossible to focus on anything else. Our individual moods, for once, match the tenor of our collective crisis. And, already – barely a week in – countless websites offer tips on how to bully yourself into redirecting your attention to work and yourself. Attention: A Love Story helped me ask different questions; to consider that paying attention to the world, to the crisis around us, still counts as paying attention. 

Alice Robb is the author of “Why We Dream” (Picador)

Attention: A Love Story 
Casey Schwartz 
Ballantine Books, 240pp, £19.99

This article appears in the 03 April 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special

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