Johann Hari: Stolen Focus, Why You Can’t Pay Attention and How to Think Deeply Again | E217
Johann Hari: Stolen Focus, Why You Can’t Pay Attention and How to Think Deeply Again | E217
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[00:01:52] Johann Hari: Think about anything you've ever achieved in your life that you're proud of, whether it's starting a business, being a good parent, learning to play the guitar, whatever it is, that [00:02:00] thing that you're proud of, required a huge amount of sustained focus and attention. When your ability to focus and pay attention breaks down. Your ability to achieve your goals diminishes.
[00:02:08] Your ability to solve your problems diminishes. If you can't pay attention. You are gonna be diminished and hobbled at every stage in your life. If you're struggling to focus, if your kids are struggling to focus. It's not your fault. It's not their fault. Your attention didn't collapse. Your attention has been stolen from you by some very big and powerful forces.
[00:02:29] And we need to realize, we are not medieval peasants begging at the court of King Musk and King Zuckerberg for a few little crumbs of attention from their tables. We are the free citizens of democracies, and we own our own minds. And together we can take them back if we want to.
[00:02:51] Hala Taha: What is up Young and Profiteers, you are listening to YAP Young and Profiting podcast, where we interview the brightest minds in the world [00:03:00] and unpack their wisdom into actionable advice, that you can use in your daily life. I'm your host, Hala Taha. Thanks for tuning in and get ready to listen. Learn and profit.
[00:03:12] Johann! Welcome to Young and Profiting podcast.
[00:03:27] Johann Hari: I'm really happy to be with you. Hooray.
[00:03:29] Hala Taha: I am excited as well. So young and profits. For those who don't know, Johann Hari is a New York Times bestselling author, journalist, and speaker. He's written three bestselling books that have been praised by a broad range of people.
[00:03:40] From Oprah to Elton John. Johann studies topics like depression, addiction, anxiety, and in his latest book, Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention, he discusses how we as individuals and as a society can get our focus back. In today's episode, Johann and I will discuss the most common reasons people develop depression and how we can overcome disconnect with one another.
[00:03:59] We'll [00:04:00] also dive into his newest book, Stolen Focus and talk about the war on distraction, why we shouldn't multitask, and how we can maintain our attention and focus in the modern age. So let's get started. Johann to kick us off, I wanna go back to the beginning of your life. You were born in Scotland.
[00:04:14] When you were a baby. Your family moved to London, and your father was a Swiss immigrant and a bus driver. Your mother was a nurse and later worked in shelters for survivors of domestic violence. And so from my understanding, there was nothing really academic about your background or your upbringing. And I wanted to know what inspired you to become a writer.
[00:04:32] Johann Hari: So a difficult question. I was mostly raised by my grandmother, whose job was to clean toilets. It was an amazing woman, cuz my mother was ill and my dad was in a different country. And I think the honest answer is someone said to me, if I want my child to be a writer, what should I do? And I said, horribly traumatize your child.
[00:04:49] I grew up in a family where there was a lot of addiction and mental illness, and the way I coped with that was by reading and writing all the time. So obviously that ended up being a very helpful [00:05:00] adaptation for me much later in my life. So I think it was probably that, but I was, no, I was lucky my grandmother, who would buy me any book I asked her to buy me, she worked incredibly hard.
[00:05:08] So I think it was probably that. It's initially that reading and writing were a kind of escape for me and tv. I also love tv. I think that's probably how it began. I was the first person in my family to go to a fancy university or anything like that. And it's funny, I think it's also a thing.
[00:05:23] It's funny if you look at the home videos we have from when I'm a kid, it's a bit like a Sterian family guy in the, like all my family have very working class accents, and even when I'm a little two year old, they have this weird poche voice. So my grandmother's Johann, come on, we got, I go and I'm like, certainly grandmother. I should be with you shortly.
[00:05:40] It's like, where did this come from? I have no idea. But I think partly, that's Britain is a very, as you can tell from my Downton Abbey accent, I am British and Britain's very class laid in society. I don't know, as a, even when a, as a young kid, I had this sort of weird slight disconnect from my environment, but also love for the people in my environment.
[00:05:58] So it's a bit of a mixed.
[00:05:59] Hala Taha: You've [00:06:00] done an incredible job. You're a three time, I think New York Times Besting author. All of your books do incredibly well. And so after you wrote your first book about addiction Chasing Scream, you wrote this book called Lost Connections, also was a bestselling book, and it's about the world's growing rates of depression and anxiety.
[00:06:16] And you released that book in 2018, and that was before the pandemic. And this topic of depression is more important now, than it even was three or four years ago. Since the pandemic and the World Health Organization has actually reported a sharp increase in rates of anxiety and depression. So I thought we could start the interview there really talking about that.
[00:06:35] When you were a teenager, you told your therapist that you felt like pain was leaking out of you and your therapist prescribed you medication, and you ended up getting more side effects from the medication, than you had previously, and you still had your depression. So what did you learn about the myth of chemical imbalances in the brain related to depression in this experience?
[00:06:55] Johann Hari: I would pull back for a second and say, the reason I wrote Lost [00:07:00] Connections is cuz there were these two mysteries, that were really hanging over me that I didn't understand. The first is, at the time I was 38, 39. And every single year that I'd been alive, depression and anxiety had increased in the United States, in Britain, and in fact across the entire Western world.
[00:07:16] And so I was asking myself why? Why is it that with each year that passes more and more people are finding it harder to go through the day? It seems strange. Why would that be happening? And you allude to, there was a more personal mystery for me. Which is that, I'd gone to my doctor, I'd explained, that I was in a lot of pain and psychological pain, and my doctor had said to me we know why people get like this.
[00:07:37] Some people just have a chemical imbalance in their brains. You are clearly one of them. All you need to do is take some drugs and you're gonna be fine. So I started taking a chemical antidepressant called Paxil. I felt significantly better at first than the effect wore off, and I took higher and higher doses until for 13 years, I was taking the highest possible dose and I was still quite depressed.
[00:07:56] So at the end of that, I was like I'm doing everything that we are told to do according to the story [00:08:00] our culture tells about depression. I'm still pretty depressed. What's going on here? So I ended up using my training in the social sciences at Cambridge University to go on a really big journey all over the world.
[00:08:09] I traveled over 30,000 miles. I interviewed over 200 of the leading experts on depression and anxiety. What causes them and crucially how we solve them. And I learned it just a huge amount from these people. But the core of what I learned is there's actually scientific evidence for nine factors that can cause depression and anxiety.
[00:08:27] Some of them are in our biology. It's why what my doctor told me was not completely wrong, right? Your genes can make you more sensitive to these problems, though they don't write your destiny. And there are real brain changes that happen when you become depressed that can make it harder to get out. But most of the factors that cause depression and anxiety are not in our biology.
[00:08:47] They're factors in the way we live. And once you understand that, it opens up a whole different set of solutions that should be offered to people. Of course, alongside the option of chemical antidepressants.
[00:08:58] Hala Taha: And I feel like what you're saying [00:09:00] really alludes to something that you talked about in your TED Talk that really illustrates what you were just saying, how it's more about your environment or external factors.
[00:09:08] You tell the story of this Cambodian man who had depression and they cured it with a cow. So I'd love to hear that story.
[00:09:16] Johann Hari: I think this is particularly relevant to us now. So you think about the story I was told, which huge numbers of people watching and listening will have been told. Which is there's just something wrong with your brain and the stress, again, that's not totally wrong, and chemical antidepressants do give some relief to some people as well as causing some negative side effects, others.
[00:09:34] But if that story was true, that it's just a malfunction in our brains. Why would depression and anxiety have doubled during covid? It's not that all our brains suddenly began to malfunction. We know what happened and in addition to a huge amount of the science that I learned, there's a moment that it's really, this different way of thinking really fell into place me, cuz it felt very threatening when I began to learn this, right? When I had that story that there was just something wrong with my brain.
[00:09:58] There isn't a story that worked well for me, right? [00:10:00] Reduce my depression ultimately, at least I felt like I knew where I was. And I've been told it by a trusted authority figure who was very well-meaning. And there was a moment in adjusting to this new story that where it felt very threatening, where you have to open up your story.
[00:10:13] And there was a found a moment where it began to fell into place for me. So I went to interview a South African psychiatrist called Dr. Derek Summerfield, who's a great guy and he explained to me in 2001, he happened to be in Southeast Asia, in Cambodia, when they first introduced chemical antidepressants for people in that country.
[00:10:30] They'd never had them before. And the local doctors, the Cambodians were like what are antidepressants? They'd never heard of them. And he explained and they said to him, we don't need them. We've already got antidepressants. And he was like, what do you mean? He thought they were gonna talk about some kind of herbal remedy or something.
[00:10:45] Instead they told him a story. There was a farmer in their community who worked in the rice fields, and one day he stood on a landmine left over from the war with the United States, and he got his leg blown off. So they gave him an artificial limb, [00:11:00] and a couple of weeks later, a couple of months later. I think it was actually, he went back to work in the rice fields, but apparently it's super painful to work underwater.
[00:11:08] When he got an artificial limb, and I'm guessing it was pretty traumatic to go back to the field where he got blown up, the guy started to cry a lot. After a while, he just refused to get out of bed. He developed what we would call classic depression. This is when the Cambodians said to Dr. Summerfield, that's when we gave him an antidepressant.
[00:11:25] And he said, what was it? They explained that they went and sat with him. They listened to him. They realized that his pain made sense. You only had to speak to him for five minutes to see why he felt so bad. One of the doctors figured if we bought this guy a cow, he could become a dairy farmer. He wouldn't be in this position that was screwing him up so much.
[00:11:42] So they bought him a cow. Within a couple of weeks, he stopped crying. Within a couple of months, his depression was gone. It never came back. They said to Dr. Summerfield, so you see Dr. that cow, that was an antidepressant. That's what you mean right now. If you've been raised to think about depression the way I was, that sounds like a joke.
[00:11:59] I went to my [00:12:00] doctor for an antidepressant. She gave me a cow. But what those Cambodian doctors knew intuitively from this individual unscientific anecdote, is what the leading medical body in the whole world. The one you just mentioned, the World Health Organization has been trying to tell us for years.
[00:12:13] If you're depressed, if you're anxious, you're not weak, you're not crazy, you're not in the main a machine with broken parts. You are a human being with unmet needs, and what you need is practical help to get those needs met. Everyone listening knows, everyone watching knows that we have natural physical needs.
[00:12:31] Obviously you need water, you need food, you need shelter. If I took those things away from you, you'd be in real trouble real fast. But there's equally strong evidence. All human beings have natural psychological needs. You need to feel you belong. You need to feel your life has purpose and meaning. You need to feel that people see you and value you. That you've got a future that makes sense.
[00:12:53] And this culture we've created is good at many things. I'm very glad to be alive today, but we have been getting less and [00:13:00] less good at meeting these deep underlying psychological needs for a long time. And that of course during Covid, our ability to get our psychological needs just fell off, met, fell off a cliff.
[00:13:09] So when you understand depression in this more complex way in relation to the scientific evidence for these nine causes, and you understand them as in part, driven by unmet psychological needs, that's important. A cuz it's true and the science for it is overwhelming. But B, because once you understand that, it opens up a whole different set of solutions, that we can begin to offer people.
[00:13:30] Hala Taha: And I love what you're saying. It's so interesting and related to these nine reasons why we get to depression. You mentioned a bunch of them, but you haven't mentioned loneliness, and I feel like this one is really important right now. I recently had Scott Galloway on the show and he talked about the loneliness crisis, and he says, loneliness is gonna be the next cancer.
[00:13:48] And you say being lonely seems to cause as much stress as being punched in the face. So I wanna start there. What are some health concerns related to being lonely? Because now people with all this [00:14:00] disconnect from covid, more lonely than ever.
[00:14:02] Johann Hari: So it is really important question, even before Covid, we were the loneliest society in human history.
[00:14:09] There's a study that asks Americans, how many close friends do you have who you could turn to in a crisis? And when they started doing it years ago, the most common answer was five. Today, the most common answer, not the average, but the most common answer is none.
[00:14:22] Hala Taha: Wow.
[00:14:23] Johann Hari: I think the figure was that 41% of Americans before Covid agreed with the statement.
[00:14:28] No one knows me what is life like when no one knows you well and you have no one to turn to when things go wrong? I spent a lot of time discussing this with the leading expert on loneliness in the world, and he was at the Chicago University, an amazing man named Professor John Cacioppo, who sadly died recently.
[00:14:44] And I'll never forget him saying to me one day, why are we alive? Why do we exist? One key reason is that our ancestors on the Savannahs of Africa were really good at one thing. A lot of the time, they weren't bigger than the animals they took down. They weren't faster than the animals they took down, but they were [00:15:00] much better at banding together into groups and cooperating.
[00:15:03] Just like bees evolved to live in a hive, humans evolved to live in a tribe. Have you ever separate a bee from its hive? It goes crazy. It goes haywire. It doesn't make sense outside a hive. We evolved to live in tribes, and we are the first humans ever to try to disband our tribes and go alone, right? And it has disastrous effects on us.
[00:15:23] If you think about the circumstances where we evolved, if you were physically cut off or separated from the tribe. You were depressed and anxious for a really good reason. You were in terrible danger. You couldn't protect yourself. These feelings evolved. Partly, there's other things going on with depression too, but these feelings evolved as a signal to say, get back to the tribe.
[00:15:43] And the reason this is so important, I'm not interested in just saying, oh look, aren't things bad, right? That's not my temperament. It doesn't interest me. What's important is that once you understand that, it opens up solutions. So I'll give you an example. One of the heroes of my book, Lost Connections is a wonderful man called Dr. Sam Everington.
[00:15:58] He's a family doctor [00:16:00] in East London, a poor part of East London where I live for a long time, though sadly, he was never my doctor and Sam had loads of patients coming to him with terrible depression and anxiety. And unlike me, he's not opposed to chemical antidepressants. He thinks they have some important role to play for some people in reducing their pain.
[00:16:16] He could see a couple of kind of obvious things. Firstly, usually chemical antide antidepressants took the edge off, but they didn't solve the problem. And secondly, most of his patients were depressed and anxious for totally understandable reasons, like they were really lonely. So one day a woman came to see him, called Lisa Cunningham, who I got to know later who'd been shut away in our home, we're crippling depression and anxiety for seven years.
[00:16:39] And Sam said to Lisa, don't worry, I'll carry on giving you these drugs. But I'm also gonna prescribe something else. I'm gonna prescribe for you to come and meet with a group of other depressed and anxious people twice a week here in the doctor's offices, not to talk about how shit you feel. You can do that if you want, but that's not the point of it.
[00:16:56] What we want you to do is find something meaningful that you can all do together. [00:17:00] So the first time that group met, Lisa literally started vomiting with anxiety. It was just so overwhelming, but the group starts talking. They're like, what could we do? And there was an area outside the doctor's offices that was just like, scrubland, just empty scrubland.
[00:17:13] So they were like, we could turn that into a garden, but these are inner city East London people like me. They didn't know anything about gardening, but okay, we can do it. So they started to take books out the library about gardening. They started to watch clips on YouTube. They started to get their fingers in the soil.
[00:17:27] They started to learn the rhythms of the seasons. The way Lisa put it to me. As the garden began to bloom, we began to bloom. There's a lot of evidence that exposure to nature, the natural world is really good for depression. But they started to do something even more important. They started to form a group.
[00:17:42] They started to form a tribe. They started to look out for each other. One of them didn't show up. The others would go looking for them and be like, Hey, what's up? How can we help you? This approach is called social prescribing. It's where doctors prescribe the people to be part of. There's an emerging body of science about it.
[00:17:57] It's still pretty small, but it's emerging and quite [00:18:00] persuasive. For example, a small study in Norway found that a social prescribing program was twice as effective in reducing depression and anxiety as chemical anti depressants. I think for obvious reason, and this is something I saw all over the world, from Sydney to Sao Paolo to San Francisco, the most effective strategies for dealing with depression and anxiety are the ones that deal with the underlying psychological reasons why we feel so bad.
[00:18:25] I would argue every single doctor's office in the United States, should have a social prescribing wing. It's free. It costs literally nothing to get people to go gardening. Maybe gotta buy some gardening supplies. I tell you it's a lot cheaper than massive amounts of drugs, massive amounts of medicalization.
[00:18:41] Although there is someplace for those things. The way I think of it is we've gotta massively expand the menu of options for depressed and anxious people. We've gotta deal with the underlying causes to stop people becoming depressed and anxious in the first place as much as we can. But we've also gotta expand the menu of options.
[00:18:55] We've gotta be asking what's the cow for this person? What's the solution? It's cheaper [00:19:00] and it's more effective.
[00:19:02] Hala Taha: Let's hold that thought and take a quick break with our sponsors.
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[00:23:21] And I love that story because it seems like there was a couple reasons why this worked. One is like curing the loneliness and finding friendships and common bonds with these people. The second one was it's almost like a future. They're planning this garden. They have a goal to look forward to.
[00:23:36] And I recently spoke to Benjamin Hardy. He came on the show, episode 206, and he is got this new book called Future Self. And he says, the first and most fundamental threat to your future self is not having hope for your future without hope. The present loses meaning without hope. You don't have clear goals or a sense of purpose.
[00:23:53] And I know from you that also without hope you can get depressed. If you don't have a future that you're looking forward to, [00:24:00] you can actually get depressed. So how should people navigate their fear or lack of security of the future?
[00:24:07] Johann Hari: As you were saying, I think you put that really and I think, as you were saying that, I was thinking about one group of people.
[00:24:12] I think you can tell that for my book, Lost Connections. Like all my other books, I learned a huge amount from interviewing scientists and experts, but actually particularly for that book. The people who taught me the most were group of people who were not scientists. If it's okay, I'll tell you their story.
[00:24:24] In the summer of 2011 on a big anonymous housing project in Berlin in Germany. A Turkish German woman called Noia Changa climbed out of her wheelchair and she put a sign in her window. She lived on the ground floor, and the sign said something like, I got a notice saying I'm gonna be evicted next Thursday.
[00:24:42] So on Wednesday night, I'm gonna kill myself. Now this is a big anonymous housing project, like a housing project, pretty much anywhere in the US. No one really knew anyone. It was in a very poor part of Berlin, a place called Kati. For people who know it's near, it's in Coburg. And there were only really three kinds of people who lived in this neighborhood.
[00:24:58] There were recent [00:25:00] Muslim immigrants, like this woman Noia. There were gay men and there were punk squatters. And as you can imagine, these three groups did not get along, but no one really knew anyone. Anyway, so people walk past Noir's window and they're like, whoa, this woman's gonna kill herself. So they knock on her.
[00:25:14] They're like, do you need any help? And Nuia said, no. Screw you. I don't want any help. I'm gonna kill myself. And she shut the door in their faces. But people outside her apartment who'd never met, started talking. They were like, we've gotta do something to help this woman. Everyone's rent was going up and lots of people were getting eviction notices, and everyone was worried that they would be next.
[00:25:33] So one of them had an idea, there's a big thoroughfare that goes through the center of Kati, this housing project, inter Mitter, the center of Berlin. And someone said, if we just block the road on Saturday and have a protest, the media will come. There'll be a bit of a fuss. There'll probably let this woman stay in her apartment.
[00:25:50] There might even be some pressure to keep rents down for all of us. Why don't we do it? So Saturday came and they built a little barricade in the road and they protested and Nuria was like, [00:26:00] I'm gonna kill myself. I might as well let them push me into the middle of the street. So she gets pushed into the middle of the street in her wheelchair, she does some interviews.
[00:26:06] The media shows up and it got to the end of the day and the police are like, the media go home. And the police are like, okay, you've had your fun. Pack it up, go home. But the people who lived in Kati said hang on a minute. You haven't told Nuria. She gets to stay in her apartment. Actually, we want a rent freeze for our entire housing project.
[00:26:24] We'll pack up when we've got that. But of course, they knew the minute they walked away from this little barricade they'd built, the police would just take it down, and that would be that. So one of my favorite people in Kati, a woman called Tanya Gardner, she's one of the punk squatters. She wears tiny mini skirts, even in Berlin.
[00:26:38] Winters, Tanya is hardcore. She had an idea. She said, okay, everyone, here's what we're gonna do. We're gonna drop up a timetable. To man this barricade 24 hours a day until we get what we want. We're gonna have two people manning it the whole time. And she went up to her apartment and she had a a clason, those things that make loud noises at soccer matches.
[00:26:56] And she came down, she said, okay, if at any point when we're manning the [00:27:00] barricade, the police come to take it down. Let off the clockson and we'll all come down from our apartments and stop them. So people start signing up to man the barricade, people who had never met and would never have met. And you started getting these bizarre pairings.
[00:27:13] So Nuria, who's a very religious Muslim in a full hijab, ended up doing, I think it was the Thursday night shift with Tanya, who is a, the opposite of a woman in hijab. The first few nights they were sitting there, they were like, we've got nothing to talk about. This is super awkward. Who could be more different than us?
[00:27:32] But as the nights went on, they started talking and Tanya and Nuria discovered they had something incredibly powerful in common. Nuria had come to Berlin when she was 16 with her two babies. She was sent from her village in Turkey to earn enough money so she could send home for her husband. So she turned up, she's 16 year old.
[00:27:50] She got these babies. She worked every job she could. And when she almost had enough money for her husband to come join her, she got word from home that her husband had died. She'd always [00:28:00] told people in Germany, that her husband had died of a heart attack. But sitting there in the cold in Kati with Tonya, she told her something she'd never told anyone in Germany before, which was that her husband had actually died of tuberculosis, which was seen at the time as like a shameful disease of poverty.
[00:28:14] That's when Tonya told Nuia something she never talked about. She'd come to Kati when she was even younger. When she was 15, she got thrown out by her middle class family cuz they hated that she loved punk and she found her way to Kati a squat there. And six months later she found herself pregnant.
[00:28:30] Tanya and Nuria realized they had both been children with children of their own in this place. They didn't understand. They became incredibly good friends. And these weird pairings were happening all over Kati. There was a young Turkish German lad called Meme. They kept saying he'd be thrown outta school cause they said he had ADHD.
[00:28:47] Then he got paired with this very grumpy old German white guy called Dita, who said he didn't believe in protests. But in this case, he would make an exception. He started helping Meme with his homework directly opposite this housing project. There's a, [00:29:00] about, I think it was about a year before the protest began, a gay club opened called Z Block, which is run by a man I love, called Rick Hud Stein, who, to give you a sense of what this club is like, it's pretty hardcore.
[00:29:10] The previous place he owned was called Cafe Anal. I thought you wouldn't wanna have a sandwich from cafe anal, but so when it opened. There's a lot of very religious Muslims in this housing project. Some of them were really pissed. And in fact, the windows for the gay club got smashed when the protest began.
[00:29:27] Z Block, the gay club gave all their furniture to build the barricade, and after the protests had been going on for a few months. They said, you guys, you should come and have your meetings in our club. We'll give you free food. We'll give you free drinks. And even the kind of progressive types that Kati were like, look, we're not gonna be able to persuade these very religious Muslims to come and have meetings underneath, like really obscene gay posters.
[00:29:47] We're not gonna be able to do it. It did start to happen the way one of the elderly Turkish German women put it to me, Neman Tanque. She said to me, we all realized we had to take these small steps. To [00:30:00] understand each other after the protest had been going on for a full year. One day a guy turned up called Tan Kai, was in his early fifties at the time.
[00:30:08] And he, it's clear when you meet him, he's got some kind of cognitive difficulties. He showed up and he'd been living on the streets for a short period and he started helping out. He was like this seems interesting. You start helping out and quite quickly, everyone loved him.
[00:30:21] He's got amazing. He's so funny. He's got an amazing energy about him. He loves hugging people and everyone loved him. The elderly, Turkish German women, they're gay men, the punks, everyone loved Tan Kai. And by this point, a lot of the people who live in Kati construction workers, this barricade they'd built was like a permanent structure with a roof and rooms.
[00:30:39] It's really nice. And when they realized Tan Kai was homeless, they said, you should come and live here. We really like you. We don't want you to be homeless. Come and live with us. So he moved in and became a much loved part of the Kati protest, and nine months later, the police came to inspect. They would do this every now and then, and Tan Kai doesn't like it when people argue.
[00:30:58] He thought the police were [00:31:00] arguing, so he went and tried to hug one of them, but they thought he was attacking them. So they arrested him. That was when it was discovered. Tan Kai had been shut away in a psychiatric hospital at the other side of Berlin in Charlottenburg for 20 years in literally in a padded cell a lot. At that time.
[00:31:15] No one, almost no one ever came to see him, and one day he had escaped. He was on the streets for a little while and found his way to Kati, so the police took him back to the psychiatric hospital at the other side of Berlin, at which point the entire Kati protest. Turned into a free Ton Kai movement, and they descended on this psychiatric hospital at the other side of the city.
[00:31:35] And I remember these psychiatrists being like, what is this? They've got this guy who they've had shut away for 20 years, who no one cared about, and suddenly they got these women in hijabs, these very camp gay men and these punks demanding his release. But I remember one of the women who lives at Kati, a woman called Uli Hartman, said to the psychiatrist, But you don't understand.
[00:31:55] You don't love him. He doesn't belong with you. We love him. He [00:32:00] belongs with us. And they were like, so you wanna look after him? She's no, we don't wanna look after him. He looks after us. He's part of us. And many things happened at Kati. They got Tan Kai back. He lives there still. They got a rent freeze for their entire housing project.
[00:32:15] They then launched a referendum initiative to keep rents down across the whole of Berlin. It got the largest number of written signatures in the history of Germany, and it led to a rent freeze being introduced for the whole of Berlin. But the last time I saw Nuria, the woman who started all this, by putting that sign in her window, she said to me, look, I'm really glad I got to stay in my neighborhood.
[00:32:33] That's great. I gained so much more than that. I was surrounded by these incredible people all. And I would never have known, and I thought a lot in Kati about Nerman. Another one of the Turkish German women, she said to me, when I grew up in Turkey, I grew up in a village and I called my whole village home.
[00:32:51] And then I came to live in the western world. And I learned that here what your meant to call home is just your four walls. And if you're lucky, your family. And then she said, this [00:33:00] protest began and I started to think of this whole place and all these people as my home. And she said she realized in some sense in this culture we are homeless.
[00:33:09] Our sense of home is not big enough to meet our need for feeling we belong. But there's a Bosnian writer called Alexander Hayman who said, home is where people notice when you are not there by that standard. A lot of us are homeless, and I remember one day I was sitting outside zip block the gay club with Tanya.
[00:33:26] She said to me, she was explained to me what they'd done, and she said, when you are all alone and you feel like shit, you think there's something wrong with you. But what we did is we came out of our corner crying and we started to fight, and we realized we were surrounded by people who felt the same way.
[00:33:42] So I can give you lots of very targeted advice and the book Lost Connections is full of this advice. But the best advice I would give you is Tanya's advice. Don't sit in your corner alone crying. Think there's some thinking. There's something wrong with you. There's nothing wrong with you. There's something wrong with the way we are living.
[00:33:58] Come out of your corner crying [00:34:00] and start to fight. That's the advice I would give.
[00:34:02] Hala Taha: So touching and inspirational. I really love that story and I think it's a good place in the interview to transition to Stolen Focus. And I think the way that I'd like to transition, since we're talking about this topic of loneliness, do you think we're innovating ourselves into isolation right now?
[00:34:20] Johann Hari: I wouldn't call it innovation, but I think we are isolating ourselves. So for my book Stolen Focus, I wrote it for a very personal reason. I could feel my own attention was getting worse. And each year that passed things that require deep focus, that are really important to me. Reading books, watching movies, having long conversations with my friends, were just getting harder and harder.
[00:34:40] And I could see this happening to lots of people. I love, particularly the young people I love. And I would say to anyone listening. Think about anything you've ever achieved in your life that you're proud of, whether it's starting a business, being a good parent, learning to play the guitar, whatever it is.
[00:34:54] That thing that you're proud of required a huge amount of sustained focus and attention. And when your ability to [00:35:00] focus and pay attention breaks down or diminishes, your ability to achieve your goals diminishes. Your ability to solve your problems diminishes you feel worse about yourself cuz you actually are less competent.
[00:35:11] So attention is our superpower. If you can't pay attention, you are gonna be just diminished and hobbled at every stage in your life. And when you get your attention back. You're gonna be vastly more effective. So obviously I wanted to understand this. So a bit like we lost connections. I ended up going on this really big journey all over the world from Miami to Moscow to Melbourne.
[00:35:29] I interviewed over 200 of the leading experts on attention and focus. And what I learned is there's actually scientific evidence for 12 factors that can make your attention better or can make your attention worse. And loads of the factors that can make your attention worse have been hugely rising in recent years.
[00:35:44] Some of them are in our technology. It's certainly not all of our technology. A lot of them are things I'd never even thought of. The food we eat is really affecting our ability to focus and pay attention. There's just so many factors we can go into the way our offices work, there's a huge [00:36:00] array of factors.
[00:36:01] But the key thing I learned is if you're struggling to focus, if your kids are struggling to focus, it's not your fault. It's not their fault. Your attention didn't collapse. Your attention has been stolen from you by some very big and powerful forces. But once you understand what those forces are, you can begin to protect yourself as an individual to some degree.
[00:36:18] And as a society, we can begin to protect ourselves even more.
[00:36:21] Hala Taha: So in the book you talk about this concept of attentional pathogenic culture. So I'd love to understand what that is and how our environment is actually shaping our inability to focus right now.
[00:36:34] Johann Hari: That's a phrase that comes from Professor Joel Nigg, who's the leading expert on children's attention problems, arguably in the world, in the United States, certainly.
[00:36:42] And he said to me, we need to ask if what we are living in now is an intentional pathogenic environment, by which he means an environment that is systematically undermining our ability to focus. That can sound very fancy, but I'll give you a specific example. I'm sure it'll be playing out for you, is playing out for me, and I'm sure we playing out for literally everyone listening today. I'd be amazed if there's an [00:37:00] exception.
[00:37:00] Some people have it worse than others. Of course. I went to MIT to interview one of the leading neuroscientists in the world, an amazing man named Professor Earl Miller. And he said to me, there's one thing you need to understand about the human brain more than anything else. You can only consciously think about one or two things at a time.
[00:37:18] That's it. This is a fundamental limitation to the human brain. The human brain has not changed significantly in 40,000 years. It isn't gonna change on any time scale, any of us are gonna see. You can only think about one or two things at a time. But what's happened is we've fallen from mass delusion. The average teenager now believes they can follow six or seven forms of media at the same time, and the rest of us are not far behind them.
[00:37:39] So what happens is scientists like Professor Miller and scientists all over the world get people into labs, younger and older people, and they get them to think they're doing more than one thing at a time, and they monitor them. And what they discover is always the same. You can't do more than one thing at a time.
[00:37:53] What you do is you juggle very quickly between tasks. You're like, what did you just ask me? What is this message on [00:38:00] WhatsApp? What does it say on the TV over there? What is this message on Facebook? Wait, what did you just ask me again? So we are constantly juggling, and it turns out that juggling comes with a really big cost.
[00:38:09] The technical term for it is the switch cost effect. When you try and do more than one thing at a time. You do all the things you're trying to do, much less competently. You make more mistakes. You remember much less of what you do. You are much less creative. And I remember when I first learned this, not just from Professor Miller, but from a deep dive into a lot of the science and scientists involved, I remember thinking, okay, I've got it.
[00:38:31] I get it. It's bad. I can see I'm doing it, but it's a, it's like a little niggling. It's a minor thing. The evidence suggests this is a really big thing. I'll give you an example of a small study that's backed by a wider body of evidence. Hewlett Packard, the printer company, got a scientist in to study their workers and he split them into two groups.
[00:38:49] And the first group was told, get on with your task, whatever it is, and you're not gonna be interrupted. Just do what you gotta do. And the second group was told, get on with your task. Whatever. But at the same time, you've gotta [00:39:00] answer a heavy load of email and phone calls. So pretty much how most of us live, and at the end of it, the scientists tested the IQ of both groups.
[00:39:07] The group that had not been interrupted, scored on average 10 IQ points higher. To give you a sense of how big an effect that is, if your me sat down now and smoked a fat spliff together and got stoned. Our IQs would go down in the short term by five points. So in the short term being chronically interrupted is twice as bad for your IQ as getting stoned, right?
[00:39:26] You'd be better off sitting at your desk smoking a spliff and doing one thing at a time, than you would sitting at your desk not smoking a spliff and being constantly interrupted by text and email. Now, I wanna be clear, you'd be better off neither getting stoned nor being interrupted. Don't want any stone.
[00:39:39] Get the wrong idea. But you can see this is why Professor Miller said we are living in a perfect storm of cognitive degradation as a result of being constantly interrupted. Now, this has huge implications for entrepreneurs, people listening, right? A lot of work is systematically degrading the intelligence and the capacities of their workers, right?
[00:39:58] So you might text someone who works for you. [00:40:00] And be annoyed. They didn't or Slack them or whatever, send 'em a message on Slack and be annoyed. They didn't get back to you immediately. You think? It would've only taken them 10 seconds to reply. In fact study by Professor Michael Posner at the University of Oregon found, if you are interrupted. It takes you on average 23 minutes to get back to the level of focus you had before you interrupted.
[00:40:20] But most of us never get 23 minutes, right? So we're constantly operating at a lower level. But you think so it doesn't just take 10 seconds to respond to that Slack message. It takes 10 seconds plus the 23 minutes it takes you to refocus your mind. Since my book came out, people keep sending me job ads that say things like, must be a good multitasker.
[00:40:39] You may as well say, must be a chronic donor for all the good you're gonna get out of that worker. One of the things I learned from my book that emerges from when you do a deep analysis of the study of the science of attention. Is our idea of productivity has gone badly wrong. We think the productive worker is the worker who can interrupt at any moment.
[00:40:58] We think a productive worker is a [00:41:00] worker who works to the point of exhaustion, in fact, that ruins their attention, ruins their creativity and capacity to think. There's many factors we can go into, but then conscious is a long answer. So I really learned that we need to deeply rethink a lot of what we think we know about attention.
[00:41:14] Hala Taha: There were so many interesting things about multitasking in your book that really sparked my interest. One of them was that you found a study where the average adult who works in an office can only really spend three minutes on any one task. Which to me was just like, what are we getting done in three minutes?
[00:41:29] Like absolutely nothing. And then also like the word multitask was actually coined by a computer scientist in the sixties to describe the function of computers with multiple processors. And we don't have multiple processors. We're not actually designed multitask. So all that was super interesting.
[00:41:45] One like random question that really came up, when I was thinking about multitasking was this trend of ADHD that's going on the internet. I don't know if you're aware of this, but on TikTok, on Instagram reels. Everybody is talking about [00:42:00] ADHD and a lot. Young Gen Zers especially, they are claiming they have ADHD.
[00:42:06] And to me it feels a little bit like an excuse for the reason why they can't pay attention at work, pay attention at school, why their room is messy, for example. And it just seems like everybody's coming outta the woodwork saying they have ADHD. And your work made me realize that maybe we're all just trying to battle this crazy environment and getting symptoms of what we think is ADHD, but really it's just our natural brains just doing either a good job or a bad job of managing our environment.
[00:42:33] So, I was curious to know your thoughts on that.
[00:42:35] Johann Hari: I have a chapter about ADHD and I interviewed a huge number of scientists about it. And I think there's a lot of truth in what you say. So some people are more sensitive to these problems because of their genetics, but they're actually just more severely affected by the thing that's affecting everyone.
[00:42:51] The way one person, Chris Mercogliano, who's an educator who works with children with educational challenges, said to me, people, ADHD people are just [00:43:00] like canaries in the coal mine. They're slightly more affected. They're early, they're affected a little bit earlier, but essentially the same thing's happening for them.
[00:43:06] My worry is I interviewed this guy called Professor Nicholas Dodman. This is gonna sound like a joke. It's not. He's a professor at Tufts University who pioneered diagnosing, ADHD in dogs and giving them rid him. So I went to interview him. He's a super nice guy, and I expected that he would say, these dogs, they've got something biologically wrong with them that has to be fixed with rid.
[00:43:26] In fact, he was very honest. Dogs need to run around for five hours a day. Almost no American dog except for farm dogs gets that. They don't like being shut inside. They don't like being left alone. They're pack animals. So he gave me an example of a dog that had ADHD in inverter commerce, ran around all the time.
[00:43:41] Then he went to live on a farm and it was completely fine. So he said, look. Of course I'm medicating them in an imperfect situation. They've got frustrated biological needs is the phrase he used, and when I give them Ritalin, is it ideal? No. What's the alternative? The dog's just gonna be going crazy. Now, that to me is a pretty honest way of talking and thinking about it.
[00:43:59] I don't [00:44:00] think it's a good solution, by the way. I don't agree with him, although I like him as a person, but I think there's something like that. That's not everything that's going on. There really are some people who are more genetically sensitive to these problems, but you are right. If you look at all the factors that are affecting our ability to focus and pay attention that I write about, there's 12 of them.
[00:44:18] You think about the fact that the way we eat is profoundly affecting our focus in attention. ADHD levels go massively up when schools put in vending machines. Where kids are consuming more shitty sugar and processed food. You think about sleep if you stay awake for 19 hours. Your ability to focus suffers as much as if you got legally drunk.
[00:44:38] And yet, children sleep 85 minutes less than they did in 1945. One of the leading experts on sleep in the entire world, Dr. Charles Czeisler at Harvard Medical School said to me, even if nothing else had changed, except that children and adults sleep so much less, that alone would be causing a huge crisis and attention and focus. The way our schools work is causing these problem.
[00:44:59] [00:45:00] And of course our kids are using technologies at the moment, specifically designed to hack and invade their attention. I spent a lot of time in Silicon Valley interviewing people who design key aspects of the world in which we now live, and there's an amazing guy called Dr. James Williams, who used to be at the heart of Google and is now, for reasons I'll explain.
[00:45:21] He quit one day. He was speaking at a tech conference, and the audience was literally the people who designed the stuff that people listening now are using today. And he said to them, if there's anyone here who wants to live in the world that we are creating, please put up your hand. And nobody put up their hand.
[00:45:38] That's one of the reasons he quit and became, I would argue, the most important philosopher of attention in the world at the moment. So we've gotta understand at the moment. I can go into more detail on this, but at the moment, the technologies we use are designed by social media companies to maximally hack and invade us in our children's attention.
[00:45:54] That technology does not have to be designed that way. At the moment, we have technology working against us in [00:46:00] the interest of a tiny number of tech billion. We could have technology that works for us in our interest to help us achieve our goals, that's absolutely achievable. The technology exists to do that.
[00:46:10] It requires a different kind of change that we can talk about. So to just to relate it to your ADHD question, can it be a coincidence that all these changes have happened and far more people are experiencing problems with attention and all that's going on is there's something genetically wrong with them?
[00:46:26] No, that's not the case, right? That is not true. Even for the people who are more genetically sensitive as Dr. Sorry, as Professor Joel Nigg, the leading children's attention expert says, even for people who are more genetically sensitive. Genes interact with the environment, your genes are switched on and off by interaction with the environment.
[00:46:44] I'm not against giving stimulants to add stimulant drugs to adults. That's fine. I would even recommend it to some adults for something. I'm much more cautious about giving them to children. I'm not saying I would never do it, but I think we need to be really careful, not least cuz there's literally no long-term research on [00:47:00] beyond 18 months of what it does to them.
[00:47:02] And there's some worrying findings in animal studies about what it does to them. That's not dealing with the problem. We've gotta deal with the actual causes of the problem.
[00:47:10] Hala Taha: We'll be right back after a quick break from our sponsors. This episode of YAP is sponsored by Elo. YAP fam, summer bodies are made in the winter, so right about now, I'm serious about my workouts.
[00:47:23] What about you? I'm trying to be young and look young forever. I work out religiously five days a week. Zero excuses. I'll work out at 11:00 PM if I have to. I can't go to bed knowing that I skipped a workout because I keep the promises I make to myself and I take my workout seriously. Weights, bands, trampolines, you name it.
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[00:52:10] I do wanna dig in on a few things that you said for sure. So you mentioned diet and sleep at a high level, but I'd love if you could really explain to us what. The food that we consume or our sleeping habits due to our focus.
[00:52:25] Johann Hari: So there's this really fascinating new movement called Nutritional Psychiatry, that looks at how the food we eat affects our mental states.
[00:52:32] It relates to depression, which we were talking about earlier, and all sorts of things, and particularly attention. So I interviewed loads of these nutritional psychiatrists who are really interesting people. Fascinating, and there's lots of ways in which the way we eat is affecting our attention. But I'll give you an, I'll go through lots in the book.
[00:52:45] I'll give you an example of one. I think. Again, not all, but a lot of people listening will be experiencing. So let's say you have the standard American breakfast. What I had this morning, in fact, which is either sugary cereal or white bread, that's been toasted and buttered. [00:53:00] What that does is it releases a huge amount of energy really quickly into your brain.
[00:53:04] It releases a lot of glucose. Which is great. You're like, I'm awake. I'm ready for the day. But it's released so much energy, so fast that a few hours later you'll get to your desk and you'll have a huge energy slump. And when your energy slumps in your brain, you experience brain fog. You just can't think or pay attention very well until you have another sugary carby snack, and then you spike up again, and then you crash again.
[00:53:24] The way Dale Pinnock, one of the leading nutritionists in Britain put it to me is the way we eat puts us on a rollercoaster of energy spikes and energy crashes throughout the day. Whereas if, for example, you had for breakfast oatmeal with blueberries, that releases energy much more steadily. You won't have those spikes and troughs that cause patches of brain fog.
[00:53:44] So you think about that or you think about sleep, which you mentioned. There's a brilliant sleep scientist at the University of St. Paul called Professor Roxanne Prichard, who really happy to explain this. There's many elements to sleep, but this is one that really clarified it for me. The whole time you're awake, your brain is building up what's called [00:54:00] metabolic waste.
[00:54:01] She calls it brain cell poop, which helped me to make sense of it. And when you go to sleep, your cerebral spinal fluid channels open and a watery fluid washes through your brain and carries this brain cell poop outta your brain, down into your kidneys, and eventually outta your body. If you don't get eight hours sleep a night, your brain doesn't get the chance to clean itself.
[00:54:20] Literally the next day your brain is clogged up, right? This is why, one of the reasons why he struggled to pay attention. When you're tired, 40% of Americans sleep less than seven hours a night. You are going through constantly with your brain literally clogged up. In fact, there's just been a big study release that showed that people who sleep less are far more likely to get dementia, which this is probably a factor in.
[00:54:42] So you can see when you look at these factors, and it's interesting cuz for all of the, obviously again, as with depression, I wrote the book Some solutions oriented person, right? I wanna think, okay, the only, to me, the benefit of understanding what's causing these problems is, okay, if you understand a problem, you're better equipped to solve it.
[00:54:58] So with all of the [00:55:00] 12 factors that I write about Stolen Focus that are harming our attention. I think there's two levels of which we've gotta deal with them. I think of them as defense and offense. There are loads of things that we can all do at an individual level to defend ourselves and our children against these factors.
[00:55:14] Give you an example of one over in the corner there, I have something called a K Safe. I should totally have bought shares in this company before my book came out cuz they're doing really well. It's plastic safe. You take off the lid, you put in your phone, you put on the lid, you turn the dial at the top and it locks your phone away for anything between five minutes and a whole day.
[00:55:31] I use that three hours a day to do my writing. I won't sit down and watch a film with my partner unless we both imprison our phones in the phone jail. I won't have my friends around for dinner unless everyone agrees to put their phone in the jail. And when we'll get nervous I'm like, the pleasures of attention are so much greater than whatever shitty Instagram update you're about to get.
[00:55:48] And as soon as the phone's locked away, they see it. So there's loads of things like that. I go through dozens of things like that in the book, but I wanna be really honest with people because I do not feel. Most people talking about attention are leveling with [00:56:00] people. I am passionately in favor of these individual changes.
[00:56:02] They will make a big difference on their own. They're not gonna totally solve the problem because at the moment, it's like someone is pouring itching powder over us all day and then leaning forward and going, Hey buddy, you should learn how to meditate. Then you wouldn't be scratching all the time and you want to go screw you.
[00:56:18] I'll learn to meditate. That's very valuable, but you need to stop pouring this inching powder on me. We need to go on offense against the forces that are doing this to us, against the food industry, against big tech. We need to, of course, we want lots of tech. Of course, we want food. I love food. As you can tell from our chins.
[00:56:34] We want these things. We want them to work for is not against us. There's for all of these 12 factors there, there's a degree of individual protection and a degree of social regulation, but these people won't do it on their own. And there's an example, you are too young to remember this, but some people listening will remember it.
[00:56:50] And there's certainly, if you ask your parents, they'll remember it. There's a great example of how we did this in the recent past. When I was a kid, the dominant form of gasoline in the United States, [00:57:00] the UK, everywhere, was leaded gasoline. And it was discovered, obviously when it's in the gasoline, it's in the air.
[00:57:07] Everyone was breathing in lead and it was discovered that exposure to lead is really bad for your brain and particularly bad for kids' ability to focus and pay attention. So a group of ordinary moms, what used to people who at the time called themselves housewives in the late seventies, banded together and said, why the hell are we allowing this?
[00:57:24] Why are we allowing these companies to screw up our kids' brains? And it's important to notice what they didn't say. They didn't say, so let's ban cars. Just obviously I'm not saying let's get rid of tech, right? I love tech. What they said is, let's deal with the specific element of the petrol that's screwing up our kids' brains and replace it with a kind of petrol that doesn't.
[00:57:40] And it followed the classic pattern of all political movements that were described by Gandhi. First, they ignored. Then they laughed at them, then they fought them, then they won. As everyone listening knows, there's no more lettered petrol. As a result, the Center For Disease Control has calculated the average American child is three to five IQ points higher than they would've [00:58:00] been had we not banned letter petrol.
[00:58:01] Now, to me, that's a great model. You identify a thing in the environment that is screwing up kids' attention. You can't protect yourself against lead if it's in the air. I suppose we could. Everyone could have got their kids to wear gas masks, but how effective is that? Not very. So you deal with it in the environment.
[00:58:15] Now, there are lots of things we can do to protect ourselves, but we've also gotta realize there are elements of our technology, that we can get rid of and replace with aspects of our technology that work for us, not against us. I go through the book and I went to places that begun to do it from France to New Zealand.
[00:58:31] But to do that, we've gotta shift our psychology. We've gotta stop blaming ourselves. We should certainly implement individual changes, but we should realize that's not the only thing that we should do. And we need to realize, we are not medieval peasants begging at the court of King Musk and King Zuckerberg for a few little crumbs of attention from their tables, right?
[00:58:51] We are the free citizens of democracies and we own our own minds, and together we can take them back if we want to.
[00:58:59] Hala Taha: I love [00:59:00] this and I wanna dig deeper around this level. So you are alluding to tech. Social media I think is one of the main culprits of especially people my age losing their attention.
[00:59:11] I think. And in your book you talk about this infinite scroll invented by Aza Raskin, which basically enables us to just continually just stay on social media forever. So I'd love to understand like what is the, what's like a alternative business model for social media, that actually doesn't totally steal our focus?
[00:59:32] Is there an alternative business model for social media? Is really my question.
[00:59:36] Johann Hari: I think you've gone to the really important question. There's three possible business models for social media. The one we have at the moment, I'll just explain it and I realized, actually, you know it's funny, from interviewing people in Silicon Valley and spending so much time interviewing people at the heart of the machine. I realized I was incredibly naive before.
[00:59:53] So the way they kept explaining it to me, it took me a while to get it. Cause it seemed too simple, too obvious. Anyone listening? If [01:00:00] you open Facebook, TikTok, Twitter, Instagram now, and begin to scroll, those companies begin to make money out of you in two ways. The first way is really obvious. Ads, okay, you don't need me to explain that.
[01:00:10] Second way is much more important. Everything you ever don't like, say in your open or private messages is scanned and sorted by their artificial intelligence algorithms to figure out what makes you tick, to figure out what you like and don't. And they're figuring that out primarily for one reason.
[01:00:28] They're figuring out what will keep you scrolling. Cuz every time you open the app and start to scroll, they begin to make money cuz you see ads. The longer you scroll, the more money they make cuz you see more ads and they learn more about you. And every time you close the app, those revenue streams disappear.
[01:00:43] So all of this genius in Silicon Valley, when it's applied to social media or this AI or these algorithms are geared towards one thing and one thing only. Figuring out how do we get you to open the app as often as possible and scroll as long as possible. That's it. Just like the head of KFC, all he cares [01:01:00] about in his professional capacity is how often did you go to KFC this week?
[01:01:03] And how big was the bucket you bought? All they care about is maxima, is hijacking your attention, maximizing scrolling. So the current business model, the technical term for it, which comes from Professor Shoshana Zuboff at Harvard, is surveillance capitalism. You seem to get it for free, but in return, they surveil everything you do and you are not the customer.
[01:01:24] Famously, TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, they've got customer service departments. You can't phone them. I can't phone them. We are not the customers. You are the product. They sell to the real customer who's the advertiser. They break up and fragment your attention to sell it to advertisers. That's how they make money.
[01:01:40] So that's the first model, right? You seem to get it for free, but you pay with your attention. You also pay by our politics becoming screwed up. But all sorts of other things that we can talk about and being much more likely to become depressed, and all sorts of other things that we can talk about.
[01:01:52] That's model one. The alternative models, everyone listening pretty much will have an experience of the other two. They're pretty simple. One [01:02:00] of them is subscription. So we all know how HBO and Netflix work. You pay a certain amount and in return you get access to the product. The key thing is subscription completely changes the incentives at the moment.
[01:02:12] They're not thinking, Hey, what does Bob want? When Bob is a Facebook user, or Instagram or TikTok or whatever, they're figuring out, how do we hack and invade Bob's attention to keep him scrolling as long as possible to sell his attention to the advertisers? Because you are not the customer, but suddenly in a subscription model, you are the customer.
[01:02:30] Suddenly they have to go, what does Bob want? Turns out Bob feels like shit when he spends all day scrolling, through photos of his friends that have been edited to make them look much more attractive than they really are. But Bob feels good when he meets up with his friends offline and looks into their eyes.
[01:02:43] Comes back to what we were talking about in relation to loneliness. Okay, let's design our app to maximize Bob meeting up with other people offline. Let's design it so he can indicate he'd like to meet up. How Bob turns out, Jenny's up the block. Sorry, Jenny in the block. That's JLO reference. Turns out, Jenny's around the [01:03:00] corner and she'd like to meet up too.
[01:03:01] Why don't you go for a coffee? You could design the app in five minutes to do that, right? My friends in Silicon Valley, you could design it in all sorts of ways that are designed to enhance our goals for our life. Not get us to put our goals aside, so we spend hours mindlessly scrolling, right? That's one alternative model.
[01:03:19] Or the third model is something that literally everyone listening has experience of think about the sewers. Before we had sewers, we had feces in the street, people got cholera. It was terrible. So we all pay to build and maintain the sewers together. You own the sewers in your town. I own the sewers in mine, along with everyone else who lives here.
[01:03:38] We all have invested interest in having a functioning sewage system and we all pay for it together. Now, it might be that like we own the sewage pipes together cuz we don't want to get cholera. We might wanna own the information pipes together, cuz we're getting cholera for our attention and our politics.
[01:03:55] Okay? Now you'd wanna make sure that was independent of the government. We wouldn't want President Trump or [01:04:00] President Biden or any political figure to control it, but there's a perfectly good model for that. I'm British. That's the model of the BBC. Every British person who has a television pays a fee to the BBC and it is independent of the government.
[01:04:11] It's not perfect, but it's the most trusted media organization in the world. But whatever alternative model you use, the key thing is about changing the incentives. The truth is as long. The longer you scroll, the more money they make, they'll just get better and better at it. As my friend Tristan Harris, who used to work at the heart of Google, said when he testified before the Senate, you can try having self-control, but every time you do, there are 10,000 engineers on the other side of the screen working very hard to undermine your self-control.
[01:04:40] I'm not saying you can't do it. You can, but it's, the game is rigged against you. And the way I think of it is we're in a race for almost all of these 12 factors that I write about Stolen Focus that are harming our attention. They're poised to become more powerful if we don't act. Poor Graham, one of the biggest investors in Silicon Valley, said the world is on course to be [01:05:00] more addictive in the next 40 years than it was in the last 40.
[01:05:03] Just think about how much more addictive TikTok is to your kids or to you than Facebook was. Now imagine the next crack like iteration of TikTok in the Metaverse, and that's true in the food industry. It's true in lots of factors that I write about. On the other side of the race, I would argue there's gotta be a movement.
[01:05:19] Of all of us saying, no, you don't get to do that to me. You don't get to do that to my brain. You don't get to do that to my child. Of course, we choose a life with lots of tech, but we also choose a life where we can think deeply. Where we can read books, where our children can play outside. Now, if we want that, we can get it.
[01:05:38] I've seen the science of how we get it. I've been to places that have begun to do it, but you don't get what you don't fight for. We've gotta decide that we value attention. If we value it and we fight for it. And of course, peacefully fight for it. If we fight for it, we can get it right. The science is very clear, but it won't happen by magic.
[01:05:55] Hala Taha: I'm so glad that I asked that question because it was such a good response, and I have so many [01:06:00] young listeners who are change makers, so smart, are new entrepreneurs, and I feel like I'm just really happy they got to absorb that from you. So let's wrap this up. I want to talk about really quick the impact as an individual and society that we have when it comes to the lack of focus or having focus.
[01:06:22] So as an individual, having focused what is enabled to do in terms of your goals as a society. Having focus now, having focus, what are the implications and then we'll wrap it up.
[01:06:31] Johann Hari: It's a really important question, and I think it's worth diving a bit into one particular mechanism in social media that is harming individual's ability to change their lives and harming our society's ability to change their lives.
[01:06:44] So what we were talking about at the moment, we got this model, the longer you scroll, the more money they make. So all the social media companies understandably set up their algorithms to scan human behavior and figure out. Okay, what makes people scroll longer? This wasn't the intention of anyone, any of these [01:07:00] companies, but they bumped into an uncomfortable truth about human nature.
[01:07:04] There's many good things about human nature, but this is an uncomfortable one. The fancy term for it is negativity bias. It's very simple. People will stare longer something that makes them angry and upset than it will. It's something that makes them feel good. If you've ever seen a car crash on the highway, you stayed longer at the mangled car wreck than you did at the Pretty Flowers on the other side of street.
[01:07:22] I'd like to think you find what I'm saying? Interesting. But if someone on the other side of the room right now started to have a fight. You would turn and look at the fight, right? This is very deep in human nature. 10 week old babies stare longer and angry face than a smiling face. And it's probably deep in our evolution.
[01:07:37] Our ancestors who weren't looking out for risk and danger probably got eaten. That's a slightly crude way, but so that's always been a little part of human nature. But when it combines with algorithms that are designed to keep you scrolling, and figuring out a step ahead of you, what am I gonna feed you?
[01:07:52] What am I gonna feed you? It leads to a horrific outcome. So picture two teenage girls who go to the same party and leave to go home [01:08:00] on the same bus, and they both opened TikTok and one of 'em does a video going, that was such a great party, we danced all night. What fun? Loved it. And the other girl opens her phone and says.
[01:08:09] Karen was an absolute hoe at that party. And our boyfriend's a prick and just does an angry denunciation of everyone at the party. The algorithms are always scanning for the kind of language you use, and they'll put the first video into a few people's speeds, but they'll put the second video into far more people's speeds, because if it's enraging, it's engaging.
[01:08:28] What do you mean? Karen's a skank? You're a skank. You can imagine people start to fight, they start to argue. Now that dynamic is bad enough at the level of two teenage girls on a bus. We all know what's happening to teenage girls levels of anxiety. But now imagine that happening to a whole society. Where the kind decent people are muffled and pushed to the back.
[01:08:47] And the angriest, meanest, cruelest people are given a megaphone, except you don't have to imagine it. Cause we've been living it. We've been living it for the last 10 years. And don't take my word for it in the aftermath [01:09:00] of the election of President Trump and the victory of Brexit in my own country. Facebook secretly set up a group of its own data scientists to figure out what's going on here.
[01:09:10] Are we playing a role in creating this rage and their own data? Scientists found that their current business model inherently promotes anger and rage. In fact, they discovered that a third of all the people in Germany who joined Neo-Nazi groups joined because Facebook specifically recommended it. You might want to join, it said, followed by a neo-Nazi group.
[01:09:31] And that's not cuz anyone at Facebook is a neo-Nazi. Cuz the fundamental business model was promoting rage and anger. So there's lots of reasons why we need to deal with this business model. A life where you are angry and being constantly prompted to be jealous, angry, mean, and rewarded for being mean and angry.
[01:09:50] Open a Twitter account, say loads of nice things about people. You'll get no traction. Open a Twitter account and start being vile and mean you'll get traction. To [01:10:00] live in that environment is disastrous for individuals. Depressing, horrible. It makes the person being mean less happy. And of course, it makes the people receiving meanness less happy.
[01:10:11] That's disastrous at an individual level. But my God, is it disastrous at a societal level? And we've got a lot of stuff we need to do as a society. We've got a lot of things we need to deal with, and we are not gonna be able to solve those problems. Think about the ozone layer crisis. When I was a kid, it was discovered there's a layer of ozone that protects the planet from the sun's rays.
[01:10:29] And when I was a kid in the eighties, it was discovered that there was a chemical chemical called CFCs that was in hairsprays that was causing a hole in the ozone layer. And we loved our hairsprays in the eighties. So this was a big deal. It was discovered it was melting the Arctic. And look at what happened next.
[01:10:44] That science was explained to ordinary people. Ordinary people absorbed the science. They distinguished the science from lies, conspiracy, theories, nonsense. And all over the world, people pressured their politicians to take action to ban CFC. And it [01:11:00] succeeded. They banned CFC as a result, as reported a couple of weeks ago.
[01:11:03] The ozone layer has almost completely healed. I don't think anyone listening thinks that would happen. Now, we would get some people who wore an ozone layer badge and argued for the right things and probably glued themselves to stuff to make it happen. And then you'd have a load of other people who'd say how do we even know the ozone layer exists?
[01:11:19] Maybe George Soros created the ozone layer. Maybe the Jews created the, you just, people just go into a kind of madness and bigotry and we would scream at each other about it and nothing would get done. So it's not just our individual attention that's being harmed. It's our collective attention, our ability as a society to focus on things and solve them.
[01:11:39] We can't, an individual who can't pay attention is gonna really struggle to achieve their goals. And a society that can't pay attention is gonna struggle to achieve its goals. And we are seeing that It's not, I don't think it's a coincidence, that we have this huge crisis of attention at the same time as the biggest crisis in democracy all over the world since the 1930s.
[01:11:56] So attention can seem like a pretty small subject when you first look at [01:12:00] it, but when you follow the threads, you realize it affects every aspect of our lives and it affects our whole society. Dr. James Williams, who I mentioned before, said to me, imagine you're driving somewhere and someone threw a huge bucket of mud over your windshield.
[01:12:12] It doesn't matter what you gotta do when you get to your destination. The first thing you've gotta do is clean your windshield. Cause you're not going anywhere if you don't sort that out. And he said the attention crisis is a bit like that. Whatever you want to do in your life, if you don't get your attention right.
[01:12:25] Good luck getting there.
[01:12:26] Hala Taha: Johann, I wanna be respectful of your time. I know you have to run. This conversation was so insightful and eye-opening. I'm very happy that you came on and you did such a great job. So thank you so much. Where can our listeners find more about you or can they find your books?
[01:12:40] I'd love for you to share.
[01:12:41] Johann Hari: Thank you so much and you've asked really great questions. I've really enjoyed this conversation. So you can go to my website. It's J-O-H-A- N for November, H-A-R-I.com. And you can find the audiobook ebook physical book for all three of my books or so the, that's probably the best place to go.
[01:12:58] You can watch my TED [01:13:00] Talks, you can see loads of other things. You can get the link to the documentary I made with Samuel L. Jackson and the Oscar nominated film that I made. I was the executive producer of. Or you can go to the specific website. So we were talking about Lost Connections. So the website for that is thelostconnections.com.
[01:13:14] You can take quiz there to see how much you know about the causes of depression. You can listen to audio loads of the people that we talked about for the most recent book. It's www.stolenfocusbook.com, where you can did sing.
[01:13:28] Hala Taha: Amazing. Thank you so much, Johan. Can't wait for you to come on again.
[01:13:32] Johann Hari: I'd love to. Hooray.
[01:13:33] Hala Taha: Johann had super fun energy. I love talking to him and I love the topic of today's episode. It was the first time Johann came on YAP, but I highly doubt it will be the last time if you're struggling to focus and pay attention. Johann says it's not your fault as you learn today, things like the food we eat and our phones have essentially stolen away our attention, when it comes to social media.
[01:13:59] The algorithms [01:14:00] are working against us. They figure out what keeps us hooked and the longer we scroll, the more money they make. I was watching an IG reel the other day talking about taking a social media hiatus, and it reminded me of this episode. There was a couple really interesting comments, and somebody mentioned that they think that there should be a national day of rest. Where all social media sites are required to shut down.
[01:14:22] I thought that was pretty interesting. And then another person chimed in and asked the question, if social media sites were banned for a period of time, how many people would want them back? And this really got me thinking. It's probably like when we were all asked to work from home during the pandemic.
[01:14:38] At first, most of us hated it, but then we realized it had its advantages. We didn't really know what we were missing. And now a lot of us could never go back to the office five days a week. And while all this is just daydreaming, real government officials are paying attention. For example, Congress is toying with raising the age minimum on social media from 13 to 16, and actually [01:15:00] going to enforce it as of today's recording.
[01:15:02] Biden just got the power from the US House panel to ban TikTok in the US if he chooses to do and of course, that decision will have little to do with the mental health of our society and more to do with our beef with China. But nonetheless, removing TikTok will remove a ton of distractions, especially for our younger generations.
[01:15:19] It was also pretty interesting to learn how Johann related our loss focus as the root cause for not being able to work together on massive issues like climate change. The ability to think deeply is a necessary tool in the fight for climate justice. We need to be able to think of creative solutions and reimagine the systems that harm the planet for capital gain.
[01:15:39] We have a crisis of attention and we have a climate crisis. They're both similar because they're both about pushing people beyond their limits and pushing the natural world beyond its limits. Johann told us about Dr. James Williams. He's the guy that formerly worked at Google and was horrified and sick with guilt at what they were doing to our attention.
[01:15:58] He quit and now today, he's the [01:16:00] most popular philosopher of our attention in the world. Dr. Williams argues that there are three layers of attention, and Johann argues that there's also a fourth. The first is what Dr. Williams calls your spotlight. That's your ability to filter out all the noise around you and achieve an immediate task.
[01:16:16] The next level up is what he calls your starlight, and that's about your ability to achieve a longer term goal, write a book, run a campaign, be a good parent, or whatever it may be. The next level up is your daylight. That's your ability to figure out your long-term goals. How do you know what book you wanna write?
[01:16:32] How do you know you wanna run a campaign? How do you know what it means to be a good parent? To know these things, you have to have periods of rests and reflection and time for deep thought. And if you're constantly jammed up and unable to stop and think, you don't get an opportunity to do that. Then Johann argues there's a fourth layer, and he calls this stadium lights.
[01:16:51] It's our ability to formulate and achieve long-term collective goals, to see each other, to be forward looking to see the truth, to think clearly as a [01:17:00] society which is necessary to combat a crisis as complex as climate change. I really do believe that we're at the start of a new revolution when it comes to social media.
[01:17:09] Many of us are starting to wake up and realize that the most popular social media sites thrive on stealing our attention, polarizing us, and monetizing our data all while making us feel depressed and insecure most of the time. It's just all gotten to a really unhealthy place. Try your best to use social media to advantage.
[01:17:27] Use it as a creator and not a consumer used to grow your business and share your knowledge and avoid doom scrolling at all cost. Thanks so much for listening to Young and Profiting podcast. If you listen, learned and profited, drop us a five star review on Apple Podcast or your favorite podcast platform. You guys can also find me on Instagram @yapwithhala or LinkedIn.
[01:17:47] You can search my name. It's Hala Taha. If you like watching your podcast, you can also catch us on YouTube. We've got all of our video podcasts uploaded over there. Thanks so much to my executive producer, Jason, assistant producer, Amelia audio engineer [01:18:00] Diego, Ops lead, Kriti, and the whole gang. I really appreciate everything that you guys do at YAP Media for us.
[01:18:06] This is your host, Hala Taha, signing off.
[01:18:24] Darius Mirshahzadeh: Hope you enjoyed this episode. I'm Darius Mirshahzadeh, hosted of the Greatness Machine and part of YAP Media Network, the number one business and self-improvement podcast network. So what's the Greatness Machine? The Greatness Machine. We are a badass podcast and we're about two things. We're while people are living their passions and those who are creating greatness in the world.
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