We are all being pulled in so many different directions.
The clock is ticking and we have a climate and virus and society and economy to fix and we’re distracted, all of the time.
Not just by all of these immense, complicated, systemic issues, not just by an explosion of candidates to donate to, and GoFundMe’s to donate to, but also by the just infinite plethora of opportunities for engagement, if only for a moment.
It’s getting harder for us to read long-form writing, to focus on one thing without instinctively reaching for another at the same time.
And here’s the broader implication:
If we can’t pay attention to what’s going on with our planet, with our communities, with the heat, and viruses, and opportunities to electrify everything, to train and hire more nurses, to educate more people, to elect folks that matter in districts and elections that matter, then we’re going to have a very hard time fixing any of it.
But we are less in control than we’ve ever been – maybe there’s free will, maybe not – we’ve evolved in this way, to constantly be scanning, like anxiety has a purpose to keep us alive, but it’s overworked and overclocked and spread too thin.
And so is our attention.
My guest today is Johann Hari.
Johann is the author of three New York Times best-selling books. His TED talks have been viewed more than 80 million times. The first is named ‘Everything You Think You Know About Addiction is Wrong.’ The second is entitled ‘This Could Be Why You Are Depressed or Anxious’.
Johann is the author of the new book “Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention, and How to Think Deeply Again”
His work here and this conversation can go a long way towards helping you be more effective, not only at home and in your job, but at giving a shit, understanding why you give a shit, and how to most effectively put that mission to use.
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INI Book Club:
- The Anatomy of a Moment by Javier Cercas
- The Apology by Eve Ensler
- Find all of our guest recommendations at the INI Book Club: https://bookshop.org/lists/important-not-important-book-club
Quinn: My name is Quinn Emmett, and this is Important, Not Important - science for people who give a shit. Folks, we are each and all being pulled in so many different directions. I'm sure you're doing 12 fucking things right now. The clock is ticking though, and we have a climate and a virus and a society and an economy to fix.
And we're distracted all of the time, not just by these immense complicated systemic issues. Not just by an explosion of candidates to donate to and GoFundMe's to donate to, but also just this infinite plethora of opportunities for engagement. If only for a moment. My wife and I have talked about this a lot.
She's this hardworking, brilliant, successful screenwriter and producer in an age when everyone above 30 has an endless array of options to distract themselves with right from Facebook to Instagram, to YouTube, to maybe even Tik ToK or games or TV. So as a creator, you're not only fighting other TV shows or movies for attention, but everything else and everyone under 30 has all that shit.
Plus Snap and Twitch and so much Tik-Tok my God. And the only TV they ever even watch is unscripted or it's YA and it's on their phone. And then we took this huge step back and remember that each of these platforms and products is specifically designed to keep your attention, to keep you on your phone, to keep you from the real world.
We're not in the fucking metaverse yet. Right? I don't think maybe isn't your phone attached to your body already? Don't you feel a sense of loss that a, like a limb is missing if you're not near it and here's the thing. It's designed that way and all of it, it adds up. It's getting harder for us to not only just be in the moment, but to read long form writing, right.
To sleep well, to focus on one thing without instinctively reaching for another one at the same time. And here's the broader implication. If we can't pay attention in the moment, if we can't pay attention, when our kids are talking or our boss is talking, how are we going to pay attention to what's going on with our planet, with our communities or schools with the heat and viruses with these opportunities that are complex, but necessary to electrify everything right?
To train and hire more nurses, to educate more folks, to elect people that matter in districts and elections that matter. Then we're going to have a really hard time fixing any of it. If we can't focus, if we can't give things our attention, if we can't be here now, if our kids can't be outside, if they can't handle being bored, if they can't build their own worlds inside their minds, out in the woods, how will that impact them now?
And later, there's this quote, this idea. That means a lot to me from Annie Dillard. And it's beautifully summarized as thus "how we spend our days is of course, how we spend our lives." And you can look at your iPhone screen time or whatever it might be. You can look at the way the day flies by, but the point is what we spend our time on is the life we make minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day action by action.
But we are less in control than we have ever been. Maybe, maybe there's free will, right? Maybe not. Daydreaming seems to kind of be essential. I don't know. Well, we've evolved in this way, right? To constantly be scanning. Anxiety has a purpose to keep us alive, but it's overworked and over clocked in it's spread way too thin.
And so is our attention. And where it clicks for me. Again, everything considered is that we need to dial in now more than ever before with our kids, with our world, our communities, and we need space to also let go to understand and indirectly think about these big complex problems with variety of pieces floating around.
And right now we don't really have room for either. So my guest today is Johann Hari. Johann is the author of three New York times bestselling books. And the executive producer of an Oscar nominated movie, his books have been translated into like 35, 38 different languages. His Ted talks have been viewed like 80 million times.
Uh, the first one's called "everything you think you know about addiction is wrong". The second one is titled"This could be why you're depressed or anxious" and he is the author of the new book "stolen focus: why you can't pay attention". And how to think deeply again, Johann's work is I think really important in this moment.
And I think this conversation can go a long way towards helping you not only pay attention more, but be more effective. Not only at home. With your partner or yourself with your kids in your job too, and at giving a shit right. And understanding why you give a shit, uh, and how to most effectively put that mission of making change to use.
So as usual, you can send feedback to me, questions at important, not important.com or you can hit me on Twitter at Quinn Emmet. Let's go talk to Johann.
Johann. Welcome to the show.
Johann Hari: Hey Quinn. I'm so happy to be with you.
Quinn: Oh, I appreciate it. Thank you for leaving Las Vegas as quickly as possible to be with us today.
Johann Hari: I've escaped, I fled.
Quinn: I know. Oh God. So happy for you. 10,000 questions, but I feel like that's a different conversation. I can't imagine the things.
Johann Hari: We'll do that for my next book.
Quinn: Perfect. Perfect. Perfect. Johann, we like to kick this off with one question. That's a little ridiculous, but does actually usually prompt something thoughtful. It sets the tone a little bit.
So that's kind of our hybrid. So instead of, Hey, what's your entire life story. I like to ask Johann, why are you vital to the survival of the species, but I encourage you to be bold and honest. You are here for a reason.
Johann Hari: I am definitely not vital for the future of the human species. This reminds me of a hilarious interview that once happened between Amy Goodman, the wonderful American presenter of, Democracy Now, left wing news show and Robert Fisk. It was a British war correspondent. And Amy said to Fisk "Robert Fisk. What gives you hope?" And Fisk said "Hope? I don't feel hope." And that was the end of the interview. And it's like the contrast between British and Americans. It's been two sides. I spent a huge amount of my time in the U S and I could never quite get over.
Literally, no British person would ever say they were essential to the human species name would be culturated out of you. Even the thought of saying that I then picture the queen doing a sort of sarcastic withering look going nah. Nah. So it's unthinkable. I mean, I'm not even sure I'm essential to the lives of the few people who love me, nevermind the entire species.
Quinn: That's a deeper question. That's something else to deal with. I worked in London at the Financial Times for a while, and that was interesting to wrap my head around was just that very different perspective of, of, of, I guess you can call it deflecting. I'm not sure how you want to phrase it, but yeah, needless to say there's some Americans that are very happy to embrace that question, but a lot of folks just go like I'm not haha.
And then we get this beautiful minute of, well, my team is, and this is why we're doing what we do. And Hey, maybe if we can move the needle and you go. Fantastic. That's all we're looking for, you know, anyways, I appreciate it.
Johann Hari: Yeah. I mean, I think when the one service I can do to the human species, it's a far as I have any is I think my job as a journalist, as being like a concierge, right?
So there's always a moment after one of my book comes out. I always wait for it. When someone that I've written about, one of the people I've interviewed and got to know for the book, often a social scientist or somebody who discovered something really important or someone who's just done amazing work in one way or another, when they email me and they say, oh, people who've read your book or getting in touch with me. And that, you know, they're asking me more about it. And to me, that's always the best possible moment. When you feel like you've connected someone who discovered something amazing to people who needed to know this amazing thing they discovered.
And that's happened to me so many times, my book about addiction or book about depression, my book about why we can't pay attention. The bit I can do is to be a concierge between people who've discovered amazing things and people need to know them.
Quinn: I love that. I've found that more and more with sort of these conversations that I have, which is just selfishly this profoundly superficial excuse to talk to the world's most incredible human beings.
People who are just like, I figured out how to pull drinking water out of clean air. And you're like, w what are you even talk? Like, what the hell are you like, where would I even begin? But I can ask questions to that person. And then at the end, they go, oh, this funder reached out to my lab and you're like, well, then I'm done.
Like, if that's, if I, if I can do that, that's okay.
Johann Hari: I can't pull drinking water out of a fridge full of bottles of drinking water. Not out of the fucking air.
Quinn: It's one of my favorite challenges. We had on these incredible women once who are working on pediatric cancer and they were describing how, which in itself is just like my argument against God in the first place is that that exists at all.
But these women are just like using all of their incredible talents and ambition. And they're using these specific types of zebra fish because, uh, the way they light up, when you give them certain genetic changes and how that can affect a certain type of blood cancer. And I'm just sitting there going, like, if they said do this, like literally, where would I start?
I'm sure you've heard of the peanut butter and jelly experiment, which is tell a child how to make a peanut butter and jelly. And you realize how many steps you skip over. Like you forget to tell them to take the peanut butter out of the cabinet. Like, I can't imagine where I would start trying to figure out, Hey, use these fish to solve cancer.
What do you, what are we even talking about? Like, what are you talking about?
Johann Hari: Here is a fish. Here is cancer. Yes. Good luck.
Quinn: What the fuck are we talking about? So anyways, yeah, I appreciate it. I want to actually kick off with something that I've been thinking today. Uh, I've been doing a very poor job with lately and it's frustrating because it is so essential to my mental wellbeing and my ability to be a good partner and dad and, and conversationalist and thinker on these things, which is meditation.
So there's a lot of studies that support meditation, right? Increasingly and there's of course, some that don't and I know psychology is full of all these studies that can't be repeated or replicated, but it works for me and the model I always use when I describe it to people, as I'm sure you've heard of this in some way, which is you're sitting at a European train station and all the trains are coming and going, and you're just at a table eating your baguette.
And your thoughts are the trains that are coming and going and ordinarily in a typical day, I'm getting on every one of those trains and going down each of those thoughts and chasing it down and it's exhausting and it's distracting and it's unproductive. But I can also just choose to sit at this table and just watch the trains go by and know that I'm not going to stop them and that there's not going to be no trains, but I can choose to not get on them.
And that can actually be much more pleasurable. It can be much more relaxing. It can help me focus later. It can make me appreciate all these different feelings and that they're transitory. Again. I do a so-so job of it, but this is all before, again, our tension with devices and things like that. Come into play.
This is. Generally, I believe you are a supporter of meditation, right? I even listened to some of the loving kindness meditation. I think you did a little while back. How does that come into play when we're talking about attention? And I guess it's almost jumping forward to like things people can do, but I wonder if you can dissect that a little,
Johann Hari: Well, I'm strongly in favor of meditation, but I want to be really honest with people,
Johann Hari: We're living in a massive attention crisis. The average office worker now focuses on only one task, but only three minutes and the main thing we do in response to this attention crisis is we tell people to meditate.
And as I interviewed over 200 of the leading experts in the world on attention and focus from Moscow to Miami, to Melbourne and learn that there's actually scientific evidence for 12 factors that are profoundly degrading our attention and focus. I really came to think that our focus on meditation while certainly valuable, as he say, Quinn, I'm strongly in favor.
Meditation has become a bit grotesque. It's like the way I pictured it is it's like somebody is pouring itching powder over us all day, and then leaning forward and going, Hey buddy, you might want to learn how to meditate. Then you wouldn't scratch so much and you want to go, well, screw you I'll learn to meditate.
That's really valuable, but you need to stop pouring itching powder on me. So we need to actually understand what is happening to our attention and the reason I wrote Stolen Focus cause it's, cause I noticed that with each year that passed things that required deep focus that are so important to me.
Like reading books. Having proper long conversations, watching films, we're getting more and more like running up a down escalator. I could still do them, but they were getting harder and harder. And I noticed the seem to be happening to everyone around me. And I learned there's this enormous array of factors that are harming our ability to focus from some aspects of the technology we use, which are designed to hack and invade our attention to the food we eat to the air we breathe.
And the fact that the primary response to that, you know, that is not happening because we failed to meditate. Right. Which is not saying meditation can't help. It absolutely can, but it's happening because of these huge complex factors. And I think. You know, there's a concept that I learned about coined by historian of France called Lauren Berland sadly died recently. So really important concept it's called cruel optimism. Cruel optimism is where you take something with really big social causes like obesity, depression, attention problems, and you say to people, Hey, great news. I got the solution for you, or let's say attention, all you need to do is use this meditation app for 10 minutes.
You're going to be fine. Your attention is going to come back. Now. It sounds incredibly kind, right? You're like you're acknowledging the person has a problem. You're acknowledging the problem is legitimate and you're presenting a solution. The reason it's cruel is because on its own, while it might help and I'm strongly in favor of meditation, it's not going to solve the problem.
Right. And most people will then fail and we'll experience it as well there must be something really wrong with me because I did the thing you're meant to do, but I've still got this problem, right? So it's cruel optimism. The alternatives cruel optimism is not pessimism. The alternative to cruel optimism is authentic optimism.
Authentic optimism is when you actually acknowledge what's causing the problem, which in this case, it is a large array of factors. And then you build sincere solutions. Some of which are individuals, some of which are collected to actually deal with those problems to actually solve the problems you scale the solutions to be as big as the causes of the problem.
Now we absolutely can do that. I went to places that are doing it from France to New Zealand. We can do that, but we're not going to, we're not going to meditate our way out. The attention crisis that was not caused by a failure to meditate. It's been caused by very big forces. Meditation will help I'm in favor of it, but we've got to have a serious conversation about what's actually going on here.
Quinn: I love that. And one, thank you for making me feel better that my meditation streak is over. Number one, should we even have streaks for these things? It just makes it even worse. As my therapist says, I should all over myself, pretty perfect. Um, and then I run myself down about that, but no, that's great because a lot of what we try to get in here, and this has been increasingly something that I have tried to understand and think about and then focus my energies on.
So for instance, 60% of my guests are identified as women and almost 50% are people of color and all variety of backgrounds. And what that has helped me understand is that boy America. Specifically and a lot of other places, but America specifically does a truly incredible job at trapping people in systems that they don't know they're in, or at the very least they couldn't possibly comprehend the scope and the money and the leverage behind keeping them in those.
And that is, that could be like you said, obesity and or diabetes. It could be childhood asthma, it could be voting rights. It could be any of these things. It's very easy to tell people, Hey, the best way to fix a system is to go vote. Okay, well, there's no mandatory paid time off in America for voting much less any other day.
There is no sick days. All we do is take away voting places from people. We make transportation expensive. If it's accessible at all, because you have to have a car, all these different things that are just structured and designed to be against them. And it's the same thing for going to the doctor or eating healthy food or air pollution, whatever it might be.
I now prefer. In those systems and to try to sort of matrix red pill and understand the way it's all designed and it's enlightening and helping. And like you said, looking at your book and trying to really understand it. It does require again, if you're reading Cal Newport's stuff, right. To take a step back and go, it's not just making a conscious decision to say, I'm going to work for two hours more every day, without being distracted, you have to understand the systems.
Johann Hari: That's why I disagree with Cal Newport. I think Cal Newport does good work. And what he says is helpful for all of the 12 factors that are harming our ability to focus and pay attention that I write about installing focus. Um, there are two levels of which we got to deal with them. I think of them as defense and offense, right?
There are all sorts of things we can do to protect ourselves and our children as individuals. And I give lots of examples in the book. But we've also got to go on offense against the causes of those factors. So I'll give you an example if it's okay. One of the causes defense it offers, cause I think can abstract -
Quinn: We can go through the whole 12 to set the scene.
Johann Hari: I wouldn't tend to be one of the leading neuroscientists in the world, a man named professor Earl Miller. Who's at MIT. And he said to me, look, you've got to understand one thing about the human brain, more than anything else. You can only consciously think about one or two things at a time. That's it?
This is a fundamental limitation of the human brain. The human brain has not changed significantly in 40,000 years. It's not going to change on any time scale. Any of us are going to say, you can only think about one or two things at a time, but what's happened is we've fallen for kind of mass delusion.
So what happens is scientists like professor Miller and his colleagues get people into labs, not just young people, older people too. And they get them to think they're doing more than one thing at a time.
And what they discover is always the same. You can't do more than one thing at a time. What you do is you juggle very quickly between tasks. You're like, wait, what's a Quinn. Just ask me, what's this message on Facebook. What does it say on the TV there about Ukraine? Wait, what do Quinn just ask me? So we're constantly juggling all the time and it turns out that juggling comes with a really big cost.
The fancy term for it is the switch cost effect. When you try and do more than one thing at a time, you'll do all the things you're trying to do. Much less competently. You'll make more mistakes. You'll remember less of what you do. You'll be much less creative. And I remember when I learned about this from professor Miller and studied the detailed, the science of this at first, I thought, okay, I get it.
I can feel that happening to me, but this is again, this is a small thing, right? This is sure. You know, it must be a small effect. This is a really big effect. I'll give you an example of a small study, which is backed by a much wider body of evidence. Hewlett Packard, the printer company got a scientist in to study their workers and he split the workers into two groups.
And the first group was told, get on with your task, whatever it is. And you're not going to be interrupted, just do the thing you've got to do. And the second group were told, get on with your task, whatever it is, but you could have two at the same time answer, 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 IQs of both groups. The group that had not been interrupted, scored 10 IQ points higher than the group that had been interrupted. To give you a sense of how big that is, if you or me sat down and we smoked a fat spliff together, quinn. Our IQs would go down by five points.
So in the short term, being chronically distracted as twice as bad view as getting stoned, you'd be better off sitting at your desk, doing one thing at a time and smoking a spliff. Then you would say. Not smoking cannabis and being constantly interrupted now, to be clear, the better off, no, the getting started knows not being interrupted, obviously, but , but this is why professor Miller said we are living in a perfect storm of cognitive degradation as a result of being constantly interrupted.
Right now let's apply this model or this defense offense model to that, which is one of the causes that I write, that there are loads of things we can do to defend ourselves against that. I'll give you an example. I don't think you can see it just there behind me. I've got something called a K safe. It's a plastic safe.
You take off the lid, you put it in your phone. You put on the led, you turn the dial and it will lock your phone away for anything between five minutes and a whole day. I used that to do my writing four hours a day. I went sit down and watch a film with my partner. And as we both put our phones in the phone jail, I want my friends come over for dinner and everyone imprisons, their phone, and it's really hard at first.
Right. You know, people are like, oh, I need it. And I'm like, you're not Joe Biden. You don't need to give orders.
Quinn: Right. Even that guy's got people.
Johann Hari: The world can cope without you for two hours. Right. It's okay. And it's really hard at first, but I explained to them, look, 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, thing that you're proud of. Required a huge amount of sustained focus and attention. And when your ability to pay attention breaks down, your ability to achieve your goals, breaks down your ability to solve your problems breaks down.
You become less competent, but when you start to get your focus back, even in quite short term ways, you feel competent again. So that's an example of one of the dozens of things I advocate in the book that we do at an individual level, but I want to be really honest with people because I don't think most books about attention are honest with people that will hugely help I'm passionately in favor of these individual interventions, but in an environment where we at attention is being profoundly degraded.
That is not enough. We need to collectively take on the forces that are doing that. So there's loads of examples in the book, well, but I'll give you a concrete example that can help us to think about it, right? Because loads of people listening will have heard me say that I used that case for four hours a day and they would have thought, Well, screw you. I can't do that. I've got a boss. My boss might call me, I'd lose my job if I did that. Right. And there's a solution to this, a collective solutions that a lot of the biggest solutions are collective. In France in 2018, they had a huge crisis of what they called low burnout, which I don't think I need to translate for anyone and the French government under pressure from labor unions, really important to note, they would never done this without the labor unions.
Set up a government inquiry to figure out, well, what the hell is going on here? Why can't, why people so burned out. I remember when we were kids Quinn, the only people who were on call were the president and doctors and even doctors weren't on call the whole time. Right,
Quinn: Right their, pager went off and it just seemed like, wow, the ability for someone to just get in touch with them at any given moment, they must be really important.
Johann Hari: And we went from that being a total rarity to that being almost half the economy, right? And this is profoundly degrading people's ability to focus. I can give those people, all the wonderful self-help advice in the world. You need to sleep more. You need to buy K safe. I can go down the whole list.
They can't do it in the current configuration. So labor unions fought for the French government to introduce the solution, which they then did. It's very simple. They introduced a new law. It gives every French worker something called the right to disconnect just as very simply your work hours have to be stipulated clearly in your contract, and when your work hours are over, unless they're paying you over time, you don't have to check your phone or check your email. That's it. You have a legal right to not do that. So I went to Paris and interviewed people about this just before I was there. Rentokil pest control company was fined 70,000 euros.
But trying to get one of their workers to check his email an hour after he left work. Now you can see how a right to disconnect is a collective change that frees people up to make the individual changes they want to make. And without that collective change, there might be some very privileged person listening who, you know, could go to their boss and go, I'm asserting a right to disconnect from now on.
But the vast majority of us can't do that as individuals, but we can do it together. Right. We can fight for it together. So you can see. A lot of the individual changes that we need to make or things that become possible when we make collective changes. So that's why we've got to have both these levels.
Quinn: I mean, I love that again. All I think about it, you know, as the US barrels towards yet another election where the fate of the world is seemingly on our shoulders in a variety of capacities. Again, I think about these systems that have trapped us that are really, I mean, very few have, have trapped me besides the attention things, but so many more have trapped folks in, you know, hot city blocks or with air pollution or again, a health system where they can't go to the doctor or prisons, whatever it might be.
And really the only way for people to escape those in any way is, is for collective action. Pressed on that lever as much as we can, because it's important to remember that, like we didn't design so many systems and that's where I always feel like as my children sort of come online, which is both exciting and total disaster, in some ways you read these articles about, Hey, this is what the Silicon valley CEOs do with their kids.
And it's like, they don't give them phones because they know what is sort of the system that's been designed against them.
Johann Hari: It was an epiphany about this that led me to write the book. Um, I have a godson who I call Adam in the book. That's not his real name, for reasons that will become obvious. When he was nine he developed this brief, but freakishly intense obsession with Elvis Presley. And it was incredibly cute because he didn't seem to know the impersonating Elvis had become a kind of cheesy cliche. So I think he was the last person in the history of the world to do an entirely sincere impression of Elvis.
That was adorable. He would do like Viva Las Vegas and Suspicious Minds. And when I would tuck him in at night, he got me to tell him the story of Elvis's life over and over again. I obviously tried to skip over the bit at the end where he shit himself to death on the toilet. And one night I was telling this story and I mentioned Graceland, where Elvis lived.
And he said to me, Dan, will you take me to Graceland one day? And I said, sure, knowing, you know, he's a nine year old next week, he'll be here planned or whatever, very intensely. He said, no, do you swear one day you will take me to Graceland. And I said, I absolutely promise. And I didn't think at that moment again for 10 years until so many things had gone wrong.
So when he was 15, he dropped out of school. And by the time he was 19, and this will sound like an exaggeration. It's not, he spent literally all, most, all his waking hours alternating between his phone, his iPad, his laptop, and his life was just this blur, WhatsApp, YouTube, porn. It was really like he was almost like worrying at the speed of Snapchat when nothing still or serious could touch him.
And one day we were sitting on my sofa and all day I've been trying to get conversation going with them and I just couldn't do it. And to be totally honest with you Quinn, I wasn't that much better. I was staring at my own devices and I suddenly remembered this moment all those years before. And I said to him, Hey, let's go to Graceland.
And he looked at me completely blankly. He didn't remember this moment all those years before. And I said, I reminded him. And I said, let's go all over the south. Let's let's break this numbing routine, but you've got to promise me one thing, which is that if we go, you'll leave your phone in the hotel during the day, because there's no point going, if you just stare at your phone.
And he really thought about it for a while. And he said, you know what? I want to do this. Let's do it. So I think it was two weeks after that, we took off from London Heathrow. We went to new Orleans first, a couple of weeks after that, we got to Graceland in Memphis. And when you get to the gates of Graceland now, even this is before COVID, there's no person to show you around, what happens is they hand you an iPad and you put in ear buds, like the ones I'm wearing now, and the iPad shows you around. It says, go left, go, right. It tells you a story about the room you're in. And in every room you go in, there's a picture of representation of that room on the iPad. So, what happens is people just walk around Graceland, staring at their iPad.
Right, this is a bit weird. I'm sort of wandering around for ages. Okay. Kind of slightly irritated by this that no one want to go like, Hey, where are the people who traveled thousands of miles and actually looked at the place we went to. And then we got to the jungle room, which was Elvis's favorite room in Graceland has got loads of fake plants in it.
And there was a Canadian couple standing next to us. I'll never forget them. And the man turned his wife and he said, honey, this is amazing. Look, if you swipe left, you can see the jungle room to the left. And if you swipe right, you can see the jungle room to the right. And I laughed out loud. Right. I thought he was kidding and I turned to look to them.
And, and him and his wife were just swiping back and forth. And I leaned over and I said, but Hey sir, that's an old fashioned form of swiping. You could do. It's called turning your head. Literally we're in the jungle room, right? You don't have to look at it on a screen, which we're actually there look. And they looked at me like I was insane and possibly correctly and backed out the room and attend to my godson, to laugh about it.
And he was standing in the corner, staring at Snapchat cause from, the minute we landed, he just couldn't stop. Couldn't stop. And I went up to him and I did that thing. That's never a good idea with teenagers. I tried to grab the phone out of his hand and I said to him, look, I know you were afraid of missing out, but this is guaranteeing that you'll miss out.
You're not showing up at your own life. You're not present at the events of your own existence. This is no way to live. And he stormed off. Again understandably. And I wandered around Memphis on my own that night. And I found him later on at the heartbreak hotel where we were staying down the street and he was sitting by the giant guitar, shaped swimming pool, looking at his phone.
And I went up to him and I said, I was sorry for getting so angry. And he didn't look up from his phone, but he said, I know something's really wrong. But I don't know what it is. And that's when I thought I need to investigate this. And that's why I went on this big journey where I interviewed, you know, there's so many of the leading experts in the world about what's happening to us.
And actually childhood is one of the things where I'm most optimistic about. It's essential that we deal with it because the kids don't develop attention. When they're young, it's going to be much harder for them to develop it when they're older. But there are very practical solutions to the aspects when it comes to childhood that I saw people get to practice all over the United States.
So happy to talk about them if you want.
Quinn: No, absolutely. I appreciate you sharing that story. It's tough. Like you said, I see it with my kids and all those people I see with folks I work with, but I also see it in myself and you know, my same thing, my wife and I have to remind ourselves and we're sitting down for our very limited time together in between when our children, we force them to go to sleep.
And when we sleep about 35 minutes later to say, you know, let's be with each other. In this time, but there's this other side that's interesting to me, because look, I grew up quote, unquote playing video games that not, not much right. It was a little Golden Eye here, a little ice hockey or SOC 97, whatever.
It might've been some game boy, some Tetris people like having distractions, right. From the uncomfortable, like that's an instinct or we like having something that feels pleasurable that's a game or, or something we're reading or whatever it might be. But it seems like all of those things that we have sort of taken for granted and enjoyed along the way.
Both from technological prowess, but also I think to more behavioral science being turned on its head, it seems like these things that seemed relatively innocent before have been designed to be much more, capture so much more of our attention over and over and over again. And I just wonder how we can help people still have a safe place to go for those kinds of things.
But at the same time, be aware that they are, you know, stepping into the shark waters, the second they do it. Does that make sense?
Johann Hari: Yeah. Well, you've got to understand the causes of the problem, and then you've got to build solutions to the problems. So, and it's important to stress actually, the aspects when I started working on Stolen Focus, I thought it would be predominantly a book about tech, actually the aspects of our tech and certainly some aspects of our tech are only one of the 12 causes that I write about that. They're a big one to be sure, but they're actually interacting with a lot of the other causes, but in terms of the tech, it's really important to understand why because the way big tech want us to think about this is are you ProTech or are you anti-tech right.
They want to think that that's the division. And of course, we're not going to all join the army. You're not going to give up your laptop or your phone, nor should you. So you kind of go, I guess I must be protech then. That's not the debate. The debate is not how you protect or you're anti-tech the debate is what tech do we want working in whose interest designed for what purposes?
So if you wanna understand one of the key reasons why your attention is being so invaded, anyone listening, if you open Facebook, Tik ToK, Twitter, Instagram, right now, any of the mainstream social media apps, those apps start to make money out of you immediately in two ways. The first way is really obvious.
You see ads, okay? You don't need me to explain that to you. Everyone knows about that. The second way is much more important. And this was explained to me by large numbers of people in Silicon Valley, many of whom had designed things that we use all the time. They explained to me the second way is much more valuable.
Everything you do when you use these apps is scanned and sorted by the artificial intelligence algorithms to figure out who you are. Right. So let's say that you indicate on Facebook that you like. I don't know. Bernie Sanders, Bette Midler. And you'd tell your mom, you just bought some diapers. Okay. He likes Bernie Sanders he's probably left wing.
He likes Bette Midler. He's a man, he's probably gay, no disrespect to any straight men who like Bette Midler never met any and he's buying diapers. Okay. He's got a baby. It has got tens of thousands of data points about you. It knows a huge amount about you, partly that's to sell that information about you, to advertisers, because you are not the customer of any of these apps.
You are the product they sell to their real customer advertisers. So if an advertiser is selling diapers, they want to target people who've got babies, but also the gathering that data to find the weaknesses in your attention and hack them and keep feeding you the stuff that will degrade your attention and keep you on the app.
Because every time you pick up the app and open it, they start to make money. And every time you close the app, their revenue stream disappears. So all of that AI, all of their algorithms, all of this genius in Silicon Valley is geared towards figuring out one thing, how do we get Quinn to pick up his phone as often as possible and scroll as long as possible?
How do we get Quinn's kids to pick up their phones as often as possible and scroll as long as possible, just like the head of KFC in his professional capacity. All he cares about is, Hey, did Quinn any fried chicken today? How much did he have? How big was the bucket? All these companies care about is how long and how often you scroll that's the whole product is designed to work that way. But what was fascinating to me in seeing lots of people in Silicon valley is that we can have all the technology we currently have, but have it not designed to work that way, it can be designed in a different way. And there was a historical analogy that really helped me to understand.
So, do you mind me asking you how old are you Quinn?
Quinn: Oh I'll be 40 this year. It's crazy.
Johann Hari: Right. So we're pretty much the same age. You're slightly younger than me. Um, so when we were kids you'll remember this, I remember it. The standard form of gasoline in the United States was leaded gasoline, right?
Quinn: Oh yeah.
Johann Hari: And a bit before our time, uh, it was perfectly normal, common that people painted their homes with leaded paint and it was discovered by scientists that exposure to lead is really bad for your brain. And in particular screws up children's ability to focus and pay attention. This was not about going right back to the 1920s and an amazing woman scientist, Dr. Alice Hamilton, warned that if you had leaded gasoline, it would pump led into the air. It would poison people's brains. It would have terrible effects on children. She was kind of mansplained out of the room and they went ahead and did it, even though there was an alternative that wouldn't do this, that didn't contain led it's actually cheaper as well, but it was just more difficult to make a profit on.
So by the time you got to the 1970s, it was impossible to deny that this was really harming children's brains. So a group of ordinary moms, what we used to call Housewives back then banded together and said, why are we allowing this? Why are we allowing these for-profit companies to screw up our kids ability to think clearly and pay attention.
This is madness. And it's important to notice what those moms didn't say. They didn't say so let's ban all paint. They didn't say so let's ban all gasoline. Just like no one should be saying let's shun all tech. Right?
Johann Hari: They said, let's deal with the specific aspects in the gasoline and the pain that are harming our kids' brains.
So they fought. These moms fought for their children. They fought for years and years to ban lead paint and ban leaded, gasoline, and everyone listening. When I noticed they succeeded, right? There's no more in paint. There's no more leaded gasoline. Now, to me, that's a really important model because there are equivalents to the lead in the lead paint and leaded gas. We can deal with when it comes to tech, I'm happy to talk about them, but does that analogy resonate with you Quinn?
Quinn: A hundred percent. Yeah. I mean, it, it makes a full-on sense.
I mean, by the way, we still have pipes with lead in them here, and you see the same studies of these children that are drinking out of lead pipes.
Johann Hari: It was in the Build Back Better program to get rid of that. And everyone listening, you can thank Joe Manchin for the fact that we didn't get rid of all that led cause he vetoed it.
So, you know, and by the way, West Virginia is one of the states with the highest exposure to lead it's app, it's literally sickening what he did.
Quinn: Pretty incredible. It is a perfect analogy. And that's why we're so supportive of groups that attack those things specifically. Look, yes, the cars have a lot of problems in general or are there too many?
Sure. But they didn't go that's it. Fuck it. Ban cars because of leaded gasoline, they said there's gotta be a way of doing that. That doesn't also, I mean, again, cars have still been poisoning people because of air pollution, but the point is it doesn't have to be so specific and paint the same way. You still can't like drink fucking paint, but at least there's not lead in it most of the time.
Right? It's the same way where you do a house inspection. And one of the first things they check for is right. Is there a lead throughout this house? Is there abestos throughout this house? You still insulate a house. It just doesn't have to be with fucking poison. Right? That's just leaking into the air.
There's way to be strategic about it. I had a thought, so obviously retaining our attention. So someone who's like, I just can't read a long book anymore because I'm just so used to scrolling, this and that, regaining these hopefully increasingly concerted periods where you're able to focus on something to give it your full attention.
And I would love to hear you talk just for a moment in a minute about Starlight versus spotlight and, and all of those things. But there's this antithesis to this, which is how important we've realized. And I certainly. Notice all the time. How important sort of mind wandering is whether that's intentional white space for giving ourselves, or you always hear about in the shower, on a run, at the gym, whatever it might be.
It's often been proven to be some of the most successful mechanisms we have for making unlikely connections, right? For doing unintentional critical. Thinking about a problem you had been focused on before. And again, as I sort of in this broad generalist, working on these complex and difficult things, a lot of what I get paid to do is to try to make those connections, but I have so much less white space because again, it's not necessarily just about the one game I'm in or Snapchat I'm in or whatever it might be - I'm not on Snapchat.
I don't know how to work it to be clear. It's about that there's just, this I'm being surrounded by these things. And so making that white space is actually really hard. And I wonder, do you see that as like that white space is almost the same fight, like fighting for a segment of focus, like sort of, do you rate an hour of focused as the same time as giving ourselves, like, don't bring your phone on your run or don't bring your phone in the shower or whatever it is because those both feel equally valuable.
To me to do my job, to be present.
Johann Hari: It's funny you say that about Snapchat. I got in trouble in an interview about a year ago where I was interviewed by a guy who was about 50. And at the end, he said, I'm hardly on social media, now but he said, you know, what's your Facebook? And I said, he said, what's your Instagram?
And I said, it was her Twitter. And I said, yeah. Then he said, what's your Snapchat? And I said, I am a 43 year old man. The only 43 year old men on Snapchat are definitely pedophiles. Right. And he didn't laugh at all. And then I've got this terrible habit. When I tell a joke, someone doesn't laugh of leaning into the joke.
So I sent a hundred percent of that show to catch a predator. The next season should literally be they just go up to adult men in the street and say, what is your Snapchat handle? If they've got one, throw them in the van. Right? Like the guy didn't laugh or I looked him up. He's quite active on Snapchat.
So I hope we get through this interview Quinn without me accidentally accusing you of a being a pedophile, but no, you're absolutely right about mind wandering. And this is one of the, there was so many things I learned in the research for the book about these 12 causes of our attention crisis that really surprise me.
And this was one of the biggest, so at the start of writing the book, I basically had two stories in my head about why my own attention was getting worse. I basically thought you're weak, there's something wrong with you. Why can't you resist this? And also I thought, well, someone invented the smartphone and that screwed me over.
But I later learned these were ludicrously simplistic, in fact wrong stories because those were the two stories in my head. The solution seemed to me to be kind of obvious. I was in the lucky position that a movie got made out of one of my previous books. So I had a load of money. I thought, you know what? I'm just gonna go away for three months with no internet.
Right? So I went to a place called Provincetown in Cape Cod with no smartphone and no laptop that could get online. And I was there for three months and a huge number of things happened. And I learned a huge amount. One of the biggest surprises was so I went away. In order to improve my focus by which I meant the technical term is spotlight focus.
It's what I was thinking of, which is like, your spotlight is your ability to narrow down your focus to one task, one immediate task. So if you think about the room I'm in and I'm talking to you from my office, right. I can hear the, uh, air con there. If I look out the window, I can see people walking past in the street.
I've got a load of books to my left. I'm filtering all of that out. I'm narrowing my focus down to you. I'm like what did Quinn just asked me. Oh, he asked me about mind wandering, right? So I thought that's what I'd gone to do to filter out the noise and narrow down. And my ability to do that, I was stunned by how much my ability to do that came back.
And I thought maybe my attention got worse. Cause I'm getting older. Right? I was nearly 40 then. Actually my potential went back to being as good as it had been when I was 17. I could read for like eight hours a day. It amazed me. I laid to realize that there were lots of changes. I made that improved my attention to focus, not just the change with the tech.
One of the other big things I learned, which really surprised me was [00:43:00] three weeks in, obviously brought a lot of books and I brought a, did I have a phone, obviously, but I brought my old iPod, which is funny. It seems so new and fancy when I bought it, it looked like something from the Ark. By the time I took it to Provincetown, but it was funny, every time I switch it on, I had to put on my noise canceling headphones and it would go searching for Johanns iPhone, searching for Johanns iPhone.
Connection cannot be made. The first three weeks I was reading all the time, talking to people or listening to audio books. I downloaded before I went and about three weeks in, I was like, you know, Provincetown is one of the most beautiful places in the world, I just started just going on these long walks and I had nothing, right.
I didn't have anything to listen to. I wasn't reading while I was walking, I started having a feeling incredibly creatively fertile during those periods. And at first I was like, oh, you're kind of cheating here. Right? Like this isn't what you came here to do. Right. But actually after I left Provincetown, I interviewed some of the leading experts on mind-wandering in the world.
People like Professor Nathan Sprang at Montreal University, for example. And I learned that actually, and there's been a real Renaissance in the scientific study of mind wandering in the last 20 years. Mind wandering is an absolutely essential form of thought for creativity, for, for depth of any kind, right?
When your mind is wandering, which means when you're thinking without any immediate object to your thinking. No podcasts, no person you're talking to you're just letting your mind flow. That is when your mind makes connections between things that seem separate that's when your mind processes what's happened in the past is when your mind anticipates what happens in the future.
These are really essential moments. But if you think about the environment we've created, think about switching that I was talking about before. What's happened, it's we're sort of in the worst of both worlds, we're neither spotlight focusing, nor are we mind wandering, we're jammed up with switching all the time between tasks switching from one app to another app to another, after another up the email.
Oh my God. I didn't answer that email. Oh my God. We're just jammed up, which gives us neither the space to deep thinking that the deep thinking that comes from focus nor the deep fertility that comes from mind wandering that's one of the reasons why we have to deal with these underlying 12 causes and we have to deal with them pretty urgently. I would argue.
Quinn: I love that. I mean, my kids love being outside and we're very lucky to now be in a place where they can be outside more with less supervision from me. They could fall out of a tree or something, but. That's going to happen regardless. They're less likely where we are now to have, ah, be kidnapped or whatever it might be.
I do understand their frustration sometimes when they're like, why is this old guy making us go outside all of the time? Right. And why is he always just like, don't come back in until dinner time. Right. It feels like some 1950 sitcom type of thing. But to me, and again, I'm sure I'm romancing this quite a bit, but in mythologizing it quite a bit.
But to me, those were where my creativity flourished the most when I was a kid or, you know, at any part of my life, whether I'm walking on the beach and I forgot my phone or whatever it might've been, that's where I, I have these memories of making those sort of connections, whether they were applicable to anything or, or not, I find them so valuable.
And I just want to protect that time for them so much. And again, I appreciate like some of these games are fun and the way they're connected and this and that, but I'm trying to find ways to walk that line, but also. Not just make them do that, but help them understand how valuable it can be to them now and later.
And it's hard cause it's really just not also how society has, is working to program them.
Johann Hari: This really deep wisdom in what you're saying Quinn. And actually I talk in the book about how we can all do this. So one of the heroes of my book is a woman called Lenore Skenazy you should totally have her on your show by the way.
And Lenore is the hero. One of the heroes, not because she describes the problem, describing problems as relatively easy. Lenore is the hero cause she's built this, I think is a key part of the solution. So Lenore grew up in a suburb of Chicago in the 1960s. And, but when she was five years old, she left her home every morning on her own to walk to school.
It was about 15 minutes away and she would bump into all the other 5, 6, 7 year olds. Everyone walked to school on their own in her neighborhood. In fact, everyone in the United States, all children walked to school on their own at that time. Right. And then when the school day would end at three o'clock, her and her friends would leave school on their own.
And they'd wander around the neighborhood. They'd play games, they made up, they do whatever they wanted to do. And they found their way home when they were hungry at like five o'clock right now, this is what childhood looked like for almost all of human history. By the time Lenore was a mom in the nineties, in Queens, in New York that had ended, you were meant to drop your child off, wait and watch while they walked through the gate.
And then you're meant to be waiting there when school ended, Right. And it turns out that childhood we've lost contained, and there's lots of scientific evidence for this, a huge number of things that are essential for children to be able to focus and pay attention. The first and this is a real, no shit, Sherlock one is exercise. Kids who get to run around for more brain connections. They can pay attention much better. Professor Joel Nigg at the university of Oregon, who I interviewed in Portland has done great work on this, but it's a lot of evidence for it.
The single best thing you could do for kids who are struggling to focus is let them go and run around, right. We are the first human society ever to try to get kids to sit still for eight hours a day. It's it's crazy, right? There's something even more important in this wisdom that you instinctively feel Quinn by getting your kids out, which is when children play freely with other children, without an adult standing over them, they develop all sorts of skills that are crucial for developing a really healthy sense of attention. One is they discover what's meaningful to them. It is much easier to pay attention to something that's meaningful to you. You discover what matters to you. You discover how to persuade other kids to pay attention to what you think is interesting. You learn how to take turns, paying attention to the things that they're interested in.
Then crucially, you learn how to take risks. You know, you mentioned this, you climb a tree, you get anxious. Maybe you fall out, but you don't die. Right? If you don't take these small risks, you get crippled with anxiety. And that of course destroys your ability to focus and pay attention. Dr. Isabel, Behncke, the great Chilean scientist, has done a lot of research on this.
We have just taken free, play away from children and supervise play where an adult is standing over them, telling them what to doing, enforcing the rules. Doesn't give them any of those benefits, right? So Lenore learned all this evidence and she's like, look, this is terrible. So she thought solution is kind of obvious.
I'll just send my kid out to play. But you know, she lived in Queens. She quickly learned. If you were the only parents sending your kid out, they get scared. You look nuts. In fact, often people call the cops, right? So Lenore decided this had to be tackled at a bigger level. So she set up a program called Let Grow, its let grow dot org really recommend everyone go to their site. And what let grow do is they go to whole neighborhoods and whole communities persuade everyone, to give their kids increasing levels of independence, build up to playing outside. And so I think of all the conversations that I had for Stolen Focus, and I had so many moving ones.
I think the most moving was with a kid in a let grow program in Long Island. He was a 14 year old boy, big, strong 14 year old boy taller than me. And until this program had been gone nine months before I met him, he had never been allowed out of his house on his own, not once. Right. His parents would even let him go run around the block.
I asked him why, and he said, My parents are scared of all these kidnappings. He said, this town, the boy lived in was like, the French bakery is across the street from the olive oil store. They have never been any kidnappings. Right. And he had a level of fear that be appropriate if you lived in Kiev right now. Right?
Johann Hari: But then this program began and him and all his friends started to play our doors again. And I said to him, what did you do? And he said, oh, we played ball games. And then he said, he leaned forward. And he said, very confidentially. He said, we'd go into the woods. Even though we got no signal on our cell phones in the woods.
And I said, oh, what do you do there? And he said, we built a Fort and now we're building another fort. And as he said, this, maybe this will sound melodramatic Quinn. It really looked like watching a child come to life. And I thought about how many kids I know who never get to explore anything except on Fortnight, where you can hardly be surprised they've become so obsessed with it.
If it's the only place they ever get to roam and explore anything and where they're not controlled. And Lenore was with me that day. And when that boy left, she turned to me, she said, think about human history, all of human history for all of human history, young people had to go out. They had to hunt, they had to seek, they had to discover things.
And then in one generation we took all that away. And that boy given a tiny little bit of freedom, what did him and his friends do? They went out and they built a Fort cause this is so deep in human nature. Now there are lots of big things that I argue for installing and focus that we need to do to restore our attention and focus both our children and for us as adults, one of them is we need to restore human childhood and particularly now they should be clear to us, whatever you think about the COVID restrictions. And I was in favor of them. We can all see that it has horrifically damaged our children, keeping them shut inside. Well okay. If shutting our kids inside for two years has really harmed them. And I can't imagine a person who would disagree with that, then we should be able to say that by historical standards, we were shutting away our kids long before COVID right.
By any historical standard, right. We've got to restore human childhood. I would argue every single school in the United States should have a let grow program. This is the low hanging fruit, right. And this costs nothing it's free.
Johann Hari: Everyone can see. From Tucker Carlson, super liberal shows that I've been on.
Everyone agrees. We've got to get this right with our kids and that we've been doing it wrong and that we can restore human childhood. And I'm much more sympathetic to the super liberal side, as I'm sure you can imagine, uh, you know, these things are fixable, right? And this is true of so many of the things that I wrote about in Stolen Focus, a lot of the factors that harming our attention are relatively recent changes.
Right? Think about what we were saying before about the web, you know, Dr. James Williams, who had worked at the heart of Google quit and became, I would argue the leading philosopher of attention in the world said to me, The ax existed for 1.4 million years before anyone said, guys, should we put a handle on this thing?
The entire internet has existed for less than 10,000 days, right? We can fix this stuff. If we want to. These big changes, what we eat we've profoundly changed in a way it's harming our attention.The way we work has been profoundly transformed, we're way more stressed.
These are all factors. I mean, you and I can remember times when these factors were less acute, right? Sure. We can deal with these problems. Like those moms dealt with lead paint, but the first thing you got to do to deal with it is you've got to understand what's happening. And we've got to realize this is not a floor.
And you, or me or your kids, this is happening to all of us. It's happening for big structural reasons. Together we can fix that.
Quinn: I love that. Well, thank you for sharing all that. It, it means a lot to me as I try to execute this and often fail in 10,000 ways as a father
Johann Hari: I thought you were going to say, as you try to execute your children, I was going to say, that's not the answer I'm arguing for here.
Quinn: Monday. Uh, it depends on the, we'll see how teeth brushing goes tonight. It's funny a friend. I don't know. I'm not sure if you have children, you don't have to share it,
Johann Hari: I don't. I don't. Every day I thank God I don't have children.
Quinn: I get it. Uh, I couldn't be more thankful. And yet is one of my wife's friends told her recently dead pan straight face.
If I'd known how difficult the teeth brushing time is at night, I would not have had children. And I'm like, I mean, you couldn't speak more specifically to me.
Johann Hari: It's funny. I have a friend I better be vague about how long ago this happened for reasons that we can clear, but a few years back, she got pregnant unexpectedly in her early forties and she didn't have any children.
And she was thinking about having an abortion. And I was like, you know, this is your last chance, you always want to have children. I talked her out of it. At of the hight of COVID. She texted me. Why did you talk me out of having an abortion? I would be lying in a bath reading a book right now. Instead I'm watching this fucking online schooling. I will never forgive you.
Quinn: I remember my brother partway through, he was so kind, he's like the greatest uncle. And he drove down from New York to Virginia and you know, this is pre vaccine. So he shut himself in his apartment for two weeks to be safe. And then he drove down and tested 20 times and all this and hung out with my kids.
And then after they were so thankful they hadn't seen anybody else. And then he was like, oh, I gotta, I gotta go drive back to New York by myself. I'll be alone in my car for I guess eight hours. And I was like, I'll pay you $10,000 right now. Any amount of money. Name it, name it. So I get it. If we can describe a couple more structural, like you said, cooperative things that folks can do.
Let grow sounds awesome. If there are any other specific organizations or pieces of research or groups or things like that, or movements that I guess are transferable from community to community, um, that folks can use, but then also on the personal side, because again, the structural stuff is important, but, and I know you talked in the book too, again with Starlight and spotlight from 30,000 feet down, how we can design our offense and our defense sort of a bulwark against these intrusions a little bit.
Johann Hari: Well, let's look at another one of the 12 factors. Cause again, you clearly see both levels. The way we eat is profoundly harming our ability to focus and pay attention in lots of ways. This is really fascinating. New movement called nutritional psychiatry. Its looking at how the ways we eat are affecting the way our minds and our brains work.
I need to be loads of people in this movement, scientists in this movement. And I mean, there was lots of factors going on here, but there's three key ways in which the [00:57:00] way, the huge transformation in how we eat has harmed our ability to focus and pay attention. So the first is, let's say you have what I grew up eating the standard American or British breakfast.
You wake up and you have either white toast with butter on it, or you have sugary cereal with milk in it. What that does is that releases a huge amount of energy really quickly into your brain, right? Releases a lot of glucose and it feels great. You have it. And you're like, whoa, I'm up, I'm awake. I'm ready for the day.
But it releases so much energy so quickly that a few hours later you'll be at your desk or your kid will be at their school desk and you'll just have a huge energy slump. Right? And then you get what's called brain fog where you just can't really pay attention very well until you have another sugary carby snack.
Now Dale Pinnock, one of the leading nutritionists in Britain said to me, you know what we're doing at the time. It's like putting rocket fuel into a mini, you know, this little British cars from the seventies, it'll go really quickly. And then it'll just stop. Whereas if you eat this fuel that it actually, your body evolved for, like, let's say you had oatmeal in the morning for breakfast.
What that does is it releases energy much more steadily throughout the day because of the way we eat we're on like a roller coaster of energy spikes and energy crashes, energy spikes, and crashes. Whereas if you eat food that releases energy more steadily, you don't get that right. The second way is for your brain to function, optimally, it needs to have all sorts of nutrients in your diet.
And we're just lacking loads of those nutrients. Think about omega threes, which you get in fish, sardines, uh, fresh fish. We're just chronically lacking them. And unfortunately, uh, supplements just don't do it. Your body doesn't metabolize. If there's anything in the middle. Exactly. And thirdly, it's not just that our food is lacking.
The stuff we need. It actually often contains chemicals that act on our brains like drugs. There was a study in Britain, in city of South Hampton in 2007, they took 197 kids and they split them into two groups. And the first group was just given water. And the second group was given water laced with loads of the dyes that you get in foods in the supermarket the whole time and candies m&ms that kind of thing.
And then these kids were monitored. The kids who drank the food dyes were significantly more likely to become manic, to have attention problems as a result, the European Union, which Britain used to be part of sadly banned most of these dyes, but in the United States, we haven't banned them.
So you can see how these three factors, now to some degree we can change our diets. And the more privileged you are, the more you can change your diet. There's some individual agency there, which we can see is, although of course, you're up against a huge appetizing industry. That's constantly trying, you know, more 18 month old children know what the McDonald's M means than know their own last name. But also those are big structural things that we've got to deal with. Right. We didn't just all suddenly start eating differently because we chose it. Right. These things happen because there was an enormous transformation in the food supply. And there's lots of organizations that are fighting on that.
I mean, a real low hanging one as well. There's some great groups associated with the British chef, Jamie Oliver fighting just for school meals, right? Feed our kids the worst fucking shit when they go to school, right. Stuff that literally, if you wanted to ruin their attention, you would feed them this shit.
Quinn: I remember when he tried to go to Los Angeles before our kids were part of that school system, but you're like, you know, he's trying to fix the diets for 700,000 kids and he just got run out of town.
It was a fucking nightmare.
Johann Hari: Well, this huge vested interest up here, the way I think about it is if you look at all of the 12 factors that I write about in Stolen Focus that are harming attention and focus in a way we're in a race, right on the one side, you've got all these factors, many of which are poised on the current tridirectory to become more powerful.
Right? Paul Graham, one of the biggest investors in Silicon valley, he said the world is on course to be more addictive in the next 40 years than it was in the last 40. Think about how much more addictive Tik Tok is to your kids. Then the Facebook was right. Can now imagine the next crack, like iteration of Tik ToK in the metaverse.
So on one side you got all these forces. On the other hand, there's gotta be a movement of all of us saying, no, no, you don't get to do this to us. No, this isn't a good life. Now you don't get to screw up our kids' brains. Now you don't get to scrub our brains. We choose focus, we choose a life where we can focus, where our kids can play outside, where we can read books, or we can think deeply, where we can let our minds wander.
Now we can achieve that, right? I absolutely believe we can get there. The evidence is very clear about what we need to do at an individual and a collective level to get there. But Elizabeth Warren said. You don't get what you don't fight for. And what have you, whether you agree with her specific politics or not.
I think she's absolutely right. You don't get what you don't fight for. If we just leave these forces to carry on, they will become better and better invading us and fucking with our brain. But we don't have to. And it requires a real shift in psychology, right. You know, we need to stop blaming ourselves and we need to stop asking only for little individual tweaks.
We are not medieval peasants, begging the court of King Zuckerberg and King Elon 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. Understand what's being stolen from us. The book is called Stolen Focus.
Cause someone is stealing your focus,
We can take it back. Right.
Quinn: I fully agree. I mean, I remember being at the Financial Times, it was just when Blackberries were takeing off and I remember seeing - this will date us - someone's Blackberry. It would be face down. And it was the first one where they put the little red light on the back to show that you had a new message.
And that was like the first notification thing. Right. And I remember thinking, oh, that's kind of cool. Like you get told when there's new message. Flash-forward 20 fucking years, right? I mean, holy shit, it's incredible. Like how we've evolved or devolved, you know, from that red light,
Johann Hari: that's like the first COVID patient in a wet market, Hey that guy, he's got a bit of a cough. Fast forward. Shit. Everyone's dead.
Quinn: 30 million people are dead, but it's true. And we have to stop. And like you said, it's going to require a lot of collection action to both going offense and defense. Well, I really appreciate you sharing all that obviously really appreciate you writing the book.
It spoke to me a lot and I know. I am incredibly privileged that during this pandemic, my wife and I both worked full-time we had two grandmas who helped out with the school and it was still a clusterfuck because one of my kids has attention issues and all this, but we were so lucky. And so I fully empathize with the parents who were like, I got to work.
My kids got to be on the device, or I can't do my job. You know, it was a nightmare pre vaccines, all this different stuff. It's crazy. But that doesn't mean it always has to be that way. And that doesn't mean we can't proactively do better as a society on a day-to-day basis.
Johann Hari: Not only does it not have to be that.
It wasn't that way. Pretty recently when we remember it, right? So we accept as inevitable, things that are incredibly recent changes that loads of places in the world that I went to from New Zealand to France had begun to put right. So we can absolutely fix these things and deal with them. And there are lots of practical ways we can do it.
Blend them from the best scientist in the world. So I'm really optimistic about this.
Quinn: I love it. I love that there's people working and you're right. I mean, it's, it's unfathomable. Sometimes the things we will normalize and if there's anything ever realize that. And in the past couple of years, it's, it's wild, speaking of Tucker Carlson.
I want to move on to a couple of quick questions. We ask everybody, and now I'm going to get you out of here. Cause it's very late your time. All right, Johann, when was the first time in your life? And this could be by yourself, part of a little squad of many Johanns, whatever it might've been, when you realized you had the power of change or the power to actually do something meaningful.
When was that moment where you're like, oh shit, I did that. That's interesting.
Johann Hari: You know, a lot of people say I grew up in a crazy family and they may know I had an over possessive Jewish mother or something. I mean, I grew up in a family that was crazy, like the Chuckie doll, right. And where there's a lot of addiction and literal madness, I think very early on, I had this sense.
So my, my father is, um, from Switzerland and he didn't speak very good English. And my mother is a working class, Scottish woman. They met when they lived next door to each other. And, um, my dad didn't speak a word of English and my mother spoke only English. And they had what my mother calls a series of one night stands, which I tried to explain.
It's not a concept that makes sense. If there's more than one of them, it's not one that's done. She got pregnant and thought they had to get married. And very often she would cry and say, he seems so fucking nice when I couldn't understand what he was saying. But I grew up in, in London in a kind of middle-class suburb of London and quite early on, I sort of realized that my parents were from somewhere else.
And I had the capacity to translate and understand this place we were in better than they did. Like I remember something when I was like six, my dad, we were in a supermarket. The bill was like, He had to pay like,I can't remember of the number of, let's say 50 pounds and 10 pence. And he tried to haggle, because where he was from the village he was from you could haggle and it's like, you call it a go, I'll give you a 50 pounds.
Right. That's the, our works. And I remember being able to translate in that situation and sort of explained to them, no, you can't do that here? Should I explain to her that he's from somewhere else? So I think it was that awareness that my parents were from somewhere else. I essentially only have one skill, which is communication and understanding things and communicating them.
And I'm not like an original thinker, but I'm really good at understanding what people are trying to communicate and explaining it to people in a way they can grasp. I'm not being fully self deprecating. That is a real skill, but it is my only skill. Probably that skill comes from that experience with my family at there being many voices and literally different languages, but, but different registers are being - very well oh, there's all these different registers around me and I can understand all of them, but they can't understand each other and sort of realizing early on, or that gives me a kind of agency and power. I think I had that sense when I was really quite small, actually.
Quinn: That's really impactful. That's interesting.
I think about folks who talk about how they maybe had to manage an angry parent or a drunk or something like that and how that eventually pervades throughout their entire life. And sometimes that's not a skill you want, but it's incredible. Again, how impactful our time as a child can be
Johann Hari: The great 13th century poet, Rumi, a Persian poet said the wound is where the light enters you. I think about a lot. I'm sure it inspired Leonard Cohen. He loved Rumi, when he said, you know, there's a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in. I don't recommend growing up in a family where terrible things happen. But yeah, one of the advantages is it can give you, give you a capacity to be present with other people's pain.
That's probably hard. It can give you a higher pain threshold for dealing with other people's distress, which I think is probably why I can do some of the work that I do. Yeah. It can be where the light enters you. It can be where the point of love and compassion enters you, it can be where oh, right. I understand why this person is suffering, you know, so there can definitely be positive aspects to it as well as obviously terrible negative effects.
And I love that. Two more. Who is someone in your life that has positively impacted your work in the past six months?
Johann Hari: My friend, Sandra Tingloff. Writing a book about a series of crimes that happened in Las Vegas. And, uh, I'm not meant to talk about it too much on my publishers will tase me, but I met Shay a long time ago.
She lived in the tunnel directly underneath Caesar's palace. There's a lot of homeless people that live in the tunnels beneath Caesars and Shay and I became incredibly close and her partner was murdered and Tommy Martin was his name and who I knew very well and loved. And Shay's now out of the tunnel is doing amazingly well.
I mean, she's just a constant inspiration to me in so, so many ways and always was from the very first time we met. It's funny just today. I was listening again to the audio of the first time we met, because I'm writing that part of the book now, but Shay has helped me with my work. I mean, partly because I'm writing about her, but she's responsive to the questions and we sit together and remember these different things that happen, but also just she's... how to put it.
Shay's approach to life is so open and so wise.
Quinn: That's awesome. Thank you for sharing that. Last one. What is a book in all your free time that you've read this year? That's either opened your mind to a topic you hadn't considered before, or has actually changed your thinking in some way?
Johann Hari: It's an incredible Spanish writer called Javier Cercas, it's C E R C A S
I apologize to any Spanish speakers. I know, um, called The Anatomy of a Moment. It's an absolutely extraordinary book. It's about a moment, a real historical moment in 1981. They were swearing in the new prime minister and the Spanish parliament. It's very recent in the transition away from the fascist dictatorship of General Franco and a group of gunmen loyal to the dead dictator came into the Senate building and start shooting into the ceiling.
I'm sure everyone is hearing the historical resonance with even more recent events in the US and they told all the sentences to get down on the ground and that all of them did it apart from three men who refused. And it's the story of the three men who refuse to get down on the ground, who were the most unlikely people to challenge these gunmen.
And it really helped me to think deeply about democracy, about, you know, there's a line that, uh, the I'm blanking on his name, but the mayor of Kiev said, um,the former boxer who's, the mayor Kiev said. He said, there's no democracy without Democrats. If there's no one who stands up for democracy, there is no democracy.
And it really makes you think about what it means to stand up for democracy. And, yeah, it's a completely remarkable book. I would recommend another book in that spirit. Actually. She also had an incredibly, I just re-read it because, um, had a conversation with her, but it's a book called The Apology by V who's formerly known as Eve Ensler who wrote the Vagina Monologues.
And I should declare as a close friend of mine, but she was sexually abused by her dad from when she was seven to when she was 14 and her father died years ago. And he never acknowledged what he'd done or apologize to her. And at the height of MeToo, and everything that was happening, V realized.
She had never heard a sincere apology from a man who'd committed sexual assault against a woman. And she wrote this book it's incredibly powerful and challenging from the perspective of her father, as it was in his voice, she wrote the apology. She wished he'd written to her. And it's a real attempt to think through what apologies are, what kind of accountability we want, what we want and also, such as in a time of such frightening polarization, whatever the spirit we need now at this time of such frightening polarization, it is the spirit that is animating that book.
So yeah, those are two books I'd recommend. Anatomy of a Moment by Javier Cercas and The Apology by V
Quinn: tremendous, I will, uh, add those all, check them out myself. We've got a little list on bookshop for, uh, everybody loves to check out the books. Johann, Joanna Perry, your number's being called. Finally. I really appreciate your time.
Johann Hari: Thank you. I meant to say my publishers, give me this fucking ridiculous script that I meant to say, please, which is, I mean, I can't say oh, because it makes me sound like an absolute dick, but, um, if anyone who wants to know where to get the audio book, the ebook or the physical book, you can basically get it anywhere.
I'm meant to say you can get it from all good bookshops, but the truth is you can get it from really shitty book shops as well. If you want to, we don't have like a quality test, but you could, if you want to know where to get them, you can go anywhere.. You can go to stolen focus, book.com, where you can see what Oprah, Hillary Clinton, and many other people have said about the book and you can also listen for free to audio, have loads of the experts that we've talked about. I can't read the rest of that because it sounds ridiculous, but that's the kind of community.
Quinn: Sounds great. You did it. I'll tell them you checked all the boxes.
Excellent. Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.
Johann Hari: Thank you so much.
Quinn: Take care of, get some rest.
Johann Hari: Brilliant. Thanks.
Quinn: Thanks for listening to the show. A reminder you can send feedback or questions about this episode or some guest recommendations to me at questions at important, not important.com. Links to anything we talked about today are in your show notes in your podcast player. If you want to rep INI or your shit giver status, you can find sustainable t-shirts, hoodies and a variety of coffee delivery vessels in our firstname.lastname@example.org slash store.
You can subscribe to our critically acclaimed weekly newsletter for free at newsletter dot important, not important.com. Our theme music was composed by Tim Blaine. The show was edited by Anthony Luciane and the whole episode was produced by Willow Beck. We'll see you next time.