Is technology turning our brains to mush?

The ability to focus is at the forefront of many minds – for a second, that is. Before it’s stolen. Or lost. But which of the two is it? And is technology really to blame for our inability to concentrate?

In our quest to achieve a steady workflow, technology has never been more important. We have apps that tell us where we parked, and smartwatches that monitor our blood pressure and sleeping patterns. We’ve removed the need to think about banal tasks and surrounded ourselves with social media focus-gurus. And yet, we still find ourselves struggling to concentrate.

This is in part due to the micro-stimulations we are constantly exposed to throughout our day, from the pings of notifications and messages to news alerts. Just like our phones, we, ourselves, are suspended in a state of constant alert, which in turn chips away at our attention, and impacts both our memory and sleep.

Technology is so closely entangled in our lives that, according to one study, 90% of teens reported having experienced phantom vibrations – which is when you’re convinced you felt a buzz against your pocket from a message on Instagram or the football score but there’s no message to be seen. So, if the generation of digital natives can’t even get away with a digital detox without a tech-themed haunting, how are adults supposed to fare out in the working world?

In short: it’s not that simple. In fact, as cognitive psychologist Gloria Mark points out in Attention Span: Finding Focus for a Fulfilling Life, even though we’re all constantly tempted by the allure of dopamine-soaked social media scrolls, we’re also pretty good at getting in our own way. Participants in one study revealed they checked their inboxes 77 times a day – and 41% did so of their own volition. In other words, notifications aren’t always to blame for our lapses in attention.

This begs the question then of whether the obstacle between us and finding our flow is really technology or quite simply ourselves. Much in the same way that some of us work better early in the morning, while others are night owls, there may also be people who are just more prone to falling down a YouTube rabbit hole when they really should be finishing that last draft.

Perhaps the real solution to dwindling attention spans in this case is mindfulness. Instead of checking our screen time on apps at the end of the day, we should first ask what made us click in the first place. Maybe you were tired. Maybe you were bored. Maybe following that link gave you the reset you needed. Maybe to achieve focus in a world so set on productivity, staying focused 100% of the time shouldn’t be our only goal.