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Gloria Mark, attention expert: ‘Our phones are the world’s largest candy stores’

The professor, one of the foremost experts on technology’s impact on concentration, believes our goal in the digital era should be focusing on how much we can handle

Gloria Mark
Gloria Mark, informatics professor at the University of California, Irvine, and researcher at Microsoft Research.Michaela Kobsa-Mark
Jordi Pérez Colomé

Gloria Mark, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, has spent more than 20 years studying human attention. She practically invented the discipline: before the internet, no one had worried about concentration. Now she brings together her research in her new book, Attention Span: A Groundbreaking Way to Restore Balance, Happiness and Productivity.

The book is full of interesting details, but Mark highlights some major conclusions. For example, even though big tech companies monetize our lack of attention, the digital era has no turning back. We shouldn’t feel bad if we use our phones to relax our minds with TikTok or a game, because those breaks can help us concentrate again. And we have to be careful about what we do with our attention, because we’re just at the beginning of a new era.

Though there’s no need to despair about lacking attention, we should know that staying concentrated for a while is indispensable: the balance between productivity and well-being should be the objective. On a video call with EL PAÍS, Mark, also a researcher at Microsoft Research, explains some of the principles behind her book.

Question. Is it our fault that we get distracted?

Answer. It’s not just our fault. There are other influences that we can’t ignore. We should not feel terribly guilty if we’re not able to pay attention, because we should understand there’s many other forces that appeal to our attention.

Q. Have we always had so many interruptions?

A. We don’t know because nobody’s ever really studied it. I can’t say what life was like before, even though I lived before the internet. But before people would have been distracted by other things, like phone calls or other people. There always were distractions.

Q. But it feels pretty different now.

A. There’s so many forces that compel us to sit in front of our computers and phones. Once we’re there, we’re in front of the world’s largest candy stores. You have a thought that comes in your mind, and within milliseconds, you can look it up. We become accustomed to that. We know we can do this, so it’s been reinforced. I have this urge, I want to know what’s happening in Israel, and I can look that up.

Q. The internet was designed to be like our minds.

A. The internet was designed for distraction, not intentionally, but it was designed to mimic our minds and that’s why it’s so distracting.

Q. Is there any turning back?

A. The ship has sailed. We live in a technological world. There is no way we can cut ourselves off.

Q. And those unstoppable notifications are part of that world.

A. I’m totally against monetizing our attention and the idea that our digital traces that we leave on the web are used against us.

Q. But notifications are imposed on us.

A. If that were the only thing or even the main thing, it would mean that humans have no free will, that we are complete pawns in a pinball machine, just being swung around from one algorithm to another ad to another ad. I don’t think that’s how humans work. We certainly can be attracted to ads, but we also have agency and free will, so that with some effort we can avoid them or we can turn them off

Q. But sometimes we look at notifications automatically.

A. Right, that’s not our free will that’s at play. That’s our unconscious part of us that’s taking over. But if we were to step back and become aware of what we’re doing, we can bring them to our conscious awareness. Then we can do something and then we can exert free will.

Q. People fear that terrible consequences will come from that unconscious mind.

A. I’ve been part of the internet since it was developed, and I’ve seen the whole progression of the internet. I’ve heard people expressing fears about the internet from the very beginning, so I’m not worried. I am optimistic, because I see that people always make course corrections. People were worried about the printing press, they were worried about television, they were extremely worried when the internet first started and now people are worried about chat GPT.

Q. Your idea that we have a limited supply of attention is interesting.

A. We have a limited tank time. That’s the metaphor I use. Different things can drain it, like shifting our attention while multitasking, and even periods of sustained focus can drain us. I was searching on the internet because I had to give a talk about this, and I wanted to talk about this point. I found all these narratives out there that said, “we can teach you how to focus for 10 hours.” “We can teach you how to do non-stop focus.” “Here’s a book that teaches you how to focus the entire day.” It’s not humanly possible. There’s some neuroscience research that just came out that shows that there’s a physical basis why we can’t focus for extended periods. There’s a neurotransmitter called glutamate, and it builds up in our brains and sends us a signal that says, you’re exhausted. We don’t always listen to that signal, but people have real genuine cognitive fatigue. That’s measurable through FMRI. So we can’t focus for ten hours, or even five hours. We don’t have the capacity to do that.

Q. And are Candy Crush and games like that a way to refill that tank?

R. It’s a way to replenish, because it makes people happy, it calms them. So it’s okay, but be strategic. If you’re a person that can end up playing it for hours, then arrange it so that you’re playing it for five minutes or 10 minutes. Set a time. I talk about using a hook. Arrange your environment in such a way that you’re not going to get stuck in a rabbit hole,

Q. How can you control that?

A. It’s about developing a new habit. For example, I have this anagram game that I love, but I only play it when I’m waiting for the tea to boil. It’s very short. But it’s a good deadline for me, and it’s a habit that I developed. People can come up with their own.

Q. But we shouldn’t be hard on ourselves if we use those interruptions to relax.

A. A person can be much more relaxed about what they do, but nevertheless, if you are a person who has a tendency to get stuck in a rabbit hole, and if you feel guilty afterwards, then I would say you have to limit yourself. I’ve spoken to so many people who say they feel terrible. They feel guilty. If you’re that kind of person, then you don’t want to allow yourself unlimited time on social media. You do want to set boundaries and set a timer.

Q. What do we know about boredom?

A. It leads to a negative mood. People are not happy when they’re bored. I would say avoid boredom. Is yoga boredom? No, probably not because people are interested in yoga. Is meditation boredom? No, I would say it’s not, because your mind is doing something when you’re meditating. I probe myself to try to be aware of what I’m doing, and then I stop if it’s not bringing me value or it’s not interesting.

Q. Your research has found that we spend 40 seconds on each screen before changing.

A. That’s the average amount of time that a person spends on any screen before switching screens, and that’s measured through computers. The median of the observations that we did was 40 seconds, which means that half of all of our observations were less than 40 seconds. A lot of times people are switching really fast.

Q. It’s interesting that it’s the same for all ages.

R. We haven’t found differences in ages, although I have to say we haven’t measured very old people. Most of the people we’ve measured are people in the knowledge workplace, between 25 and maybe 55.

Q. What about people who don’t work on computers?

A. We did not look at professions who move around a lot, like doctors. For someone who works in retail, I think their attention span would be shorter.

because they’re primarily using their mobile phone and then waiting on customers.

Q. And this is just the beginning.

A. The digital age is young, from a historical perspective. The internet didn’t come into widespread use until the mid-1990s, and that was primarily the West. So in other parts of the world, it didn’t come into popularity until much later. It’s only been about 25 years that we’ve actually had the World Wide Web. I often do this exercise: what will it be like in 50 years? I think it will be very different. I think it’s going to be much more integrated into our environment. There was a computer scientist named Mark Weiser who talked about a vision called ubiquitous computing. We’re starting to see it. Phones are the first step for ubiquitous computing, but imagine that it’s integrated into the walls of your house. You’re in a shopping mall, and you can just simply walk up to and ask a question. There might be screens everywhere, or there may not even be screens. Of course, AI is a whole new frontier. We’re in the Wild West. In the Wild West, people didn’t really follow laws, and in a sense, we also don’t have regulations. We don’t really understand how to integrate computers into our lives in a way so that we’re not exhausted. We haven’t figured out how to design computers so that people can use them and not be stressed.

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