It was the day before I was supposed to host a book club meeting at my apartment, and I hadn’t read the book. This was partly because of a busy schedule, and partly because the book hadn’t piqued my interest. But since I was responsible for leading the discussion, I felt a strong obligation to read. So I hid my phone and stayed submerged in the novel until I finished reading – for about five hours. I’ve now forgotten the name of the book and much about the plot. The reason why I remember that afternoon was because of how focused and peaceful my brain felt.
That was a few years ago. But as 2017 came to a close, I found myself thinking more about that moment, and yearning to repeat it. Still, every time I sat down to read—or to do anything that required sustained attention—I found I could only focus on a task for a few minutes. It felt like my brain had changed—or the worse.
To kick off the New Year, I decided to ask the experts how to get my old brain back—to re-learn how to focus and pay attention. Next, I put their theories to the test. In the audio piece below, you can listen to my journey to improve my mental fitness, and discover what I learned along the way.
Elizabeth Weingarten: When I was a kid, I’d curl up on our big white sofa, and read for hours. When I got bored, I’d write a story, play in the backyard, or draw. I lived a life of deep thought and creativity.
Fast forward to today. I’m living a life of digital distraction.
At work, I feel like I’m inside a pinball machine. I ricochet from one task to another, never focusing on anything for longer than a minute. I’m constantly trying to be more productive. But even though I’m producing more, it feels like I’m thinking less.
David Greenfield: Your brain has actually been hijacked.
Weingarten: Dr. David Greenfield is a psychiatry professor at the University of Connecticut school of medicine.
Greenfield: And the founder and chief medical officer of the center for internet and technology addiction.
Weingarten: Dr. Greenfield told me I feel like I’m thinking less because I really am thinking less when I go online. Since I never know what I’m going to find when I open my laptop or check my phone, technology becomes a variable reward system, like a slot machine. Each time I find something good, I get a hit of dopamine and activate certain areas of the brain.
Greenfield: The reason why it’s been hijacked is you’ve activated those pathways, but you’ve also done something else. When you activate those mesolimbic reward circuits, you shut down your thinking part of your brain, the frontal cortex.
Weingarten: And he says there’s an evolutionary biology explanation for that.
Greenfield: The pleasure centers of the brain are linked to very important survival mechanisms – one is eating, and one is sex. So those same circuits are activated by eating and sex. So your brain thinks you should shut down your frontal lobes because you shouldn’t have to think about eating or sex, because you need to just do it because that’s what survival is linked to.
Weingarten: Of course, my survival is not linked to being on Twitter, but my brain is acting like it is.
So, as the New Year approached, I decided that I wanted to take control of my brain back. I wanted to be able to sustain my focus for longer. To read more than three pages of a book before feeling an itch to check my phone. And to improve my ability to think deeply and creatively.
At first, I tried using an app that measured my screen time each day, but I ignored its daily alerts to put my phone away – they always came at the wrong time! And then I tried meditation. That got me into the right state of mind, but I still needed some concrete strategies. So I turned to the experts to help me get my brain back in shape.
Adam Gazzaley: Hi I’m Adam Gazzaley, I’m a professor here at the University of California San Francisco.
Weingarten: Dr. Gazzaley has a lab at UCSF called Neuroscape that uses technology to help people improve their ability to focus and pay attention.
Gazzaley: And the way I approach it is to baby-step into it. … Like all new habit formation, essentially setting some time aside that you’re going to make the decision to shut down all your other information sources, your email, your phone, your social media, and focus, and learn how to focus. And as you get better at it, give yourself more and more time.
Weingarten: As I spoke with expert like Dr. Gazzaley, I started keeping an audio diary to log how well the theory translates to practice. First I tried exactly what he suggested – setting aside some time to shut down all of my information sources, and only do one thing.
Weingarten (audio diary): So I meditated this morning, I worked out, and now what I’m going to do is I’m going to try to keep only one tab open at a time on my computer, which is going to be an incredibly hard thing for me to do, because usually I have three different email accounts open, I have slack open which is a chat, my to-do list, various articles, I was listening to a podcast earlier, I have my calendar open, anyway, it’s kind of a mess. But now I’m going through and I’m closing all of these tabs, it feels very painful.
Weingarten: Okay, so it felt like more than a baby-step at first. But the longer I sat with the discomfort, and the more days I tried it, the easier it became. I thought I might be able to make it even easier by introducing what behavioral scientists call a “hassle factor”. I put my phone deep in a backpack pocket. Like one time right before I was about to get on a long train ride.
Weingarten (audio diary): And this is a time when I would be on my phone probably the whole time. But I’m going to try to put it someplace where it’s really hard to reach, and we’ll see how that goes…
I just got off the train…I have to say it wasn’t too bad. I also go to listen to some girls talk about what it would be like if they were to talk in the font comic sans, and I got to hear a woman talk about all of the antioxidant powers of garlic. Basically, I eavesdrop a lot more when I’m not on my phone. So that’s creepy.
Weingarten: It felt like I was improving. But even after a few weeks of practice, it was still hard for me to focus on a book at night.
Weingarten (audio diary): It’s a really good book, it’s a novel, but I cannot focus on it for the life of me. I keep getting flashbacks to work emails I need to respond to, people I need to all, it’s just hard to focus on even a page of what’s actually a really gripping novel.
Weingarten: I was pitying myself and my weakling brain when I remembered an insight from Dr. Gazzaley.
Gazzaley: A lot of it is becoming introspective of your own thoughts… this meta awareness of how you’re engaging in the world, when you’re allowing yourself to drift into behaviors that you find unhealthy or believe to be unhealthy.
Weingarten: My thoughts and itch to connect weren’t necessarily “bad.” They were part of being more introspective. And they were a reminder that just like getting into peak physical shape, getting into mental shape isn’t easy.
But what it boiled down to, at least for me, was awareness.
Greenfield: Sustainable use is mindful use, meaning that you consciously choose to go on your phone. You don’t just do it mindlessly. You set goals as to what you need information-wise. You don’t use it as just a distraction or as a form of entertainment to forestall any boredom.
Weingarten: Now, before I pick up my phone or check social media, I focus. And I ask myself: Am I doing it because I’m bored, stressed or tired? Or do I genuinely need some information?
My brain still feels hijacked at times, but I’m making progress…and I can already tell it’s going to be worth fighting for it in the New Year.
I’m Elizabeth Weingarten, an editor at the Behavioral Scientist. This story was produced by my colleague Max Nesterak. We are very grateful to Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually impared for letting us use their recording studio in downtown San Francisco.