Brain Hacking: Tech Companies Hijack Your Attention

By Larry D. Rosen, Ph.D.
May 26, 2017 - Last updated: May 23, 2017

Brain Hacking: Tech Companies Hijack Your AttentionRecently I was filmed for a 60 Minutes segment called “Brain Hacking” where Anderson Cooper interviewed four experts who deal with how technology captures your attention. The piece was interesting and is, of course, available online for your viewing pleasure.

SPOILER ALERT: The piece will leave you feeling a bit leery of how tech companies are using technology and, hopefully, a little concerned with your or your clients’ relationship to technology and what it is doing to our brains rather than what we are doing with it. The message is universal.

My piece included an interview with Cooper about why we get so distracted. I talked about how only half our distractions come from outside alerts and notifications with the other half coming from internal signals urging us to check in with our virtual connections online.

I presented some data showing how often people, particularly teens and young adults, check their phones (about every 15 minutes or less) and what we check (social media, email, texts, anything dealing with communication).

From our laboratory research I pinpointed the culprit driving this checking-in behavior as anxiety about feeling the need to stay on top of what all of our social media friends are doing and feeling as though we have to keep constantly connected or we are concerned that we will miss out on something. Some call this FOMO – fear of missing out – but from our work it appears to be less of a fear and more an anxiety-based concern.

Later in the piece we hooked  Cooper to GSR (Galvanic Skin Response) and heart rate monitors and unbeknownst to him, texted his phone which lay on a table a few feet behind him as he completed a cover task of reading material on a computer screen. Every time we texted him, his GSR spiked and the culmination was when we called his phone and his GSR spiked – plus he turned his head totally around to look at his phone sitting 10 feet away.

He validated that he was feeling anxious about what he might have missed in the messages.

In my latest book, The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World, my co-author Adam Gazzaley, MD, Ph.D. – an eminent neuroscientist who studies distraction – and I tackle the problem head on by first appealing to evolutionary studies, then to neuroscience, then to psychology and finally returning to neuroscience and psychology to provide prescriptions for regaining focus and attention.

We adapt a model of animal foraging to “information foraging” to demonstrate why we cannot attend for more than a few minutes without feeling the need to distract our attention to something else, most often something contained in our smartphone.

Among the culprits that drive us, like a squirrel with ADHD, from a tree full of acorns to another tree that may or may not provide what we need to live, are anxiety, boredom, metacognition and accessibility of technology. Through each of these lenses we provide a series of helpful strategies to maintain attention and focus.

One easy strategy is based on technology’s omnipresent accessibility. Basically, when you need/want to attend to something (school, work, family, friends) remove all unneeded tech options for a set period of time. Start with 15 minutes, as most people can’t focus for that long anyway.

Our Rx: Close websites that are not related to your work (close, don’t minimize), silence your smartphone and place it face down to help ignore visual alerts. Set an alarm for 15 minutes and when the alarm rings allow yourself one minute only to check in with anything and then repeat the process.

Continue until 15 minutes feels comfortable and then increase to 20, 30 minutes or more. Don’t forget to let your contacts know what you are doing or they will insistently message you, getting more upset at your lack of immediacy until they start to get nasty at your seeming avoidance.

Other solutions come from neuroscience and take into consideration that we have a Basic Rest and Activity Cycle of about 90 minutes until we need a break.

If you have just used technology for 90 minutes take a 10-minute break and do one of the following activities that neuroscience has shown to calm your overactive brain: exercise, experience nature, practice a foreign language, listen to familiar music, look at beautiful art, meditate or have a pleasant talk with a friend (live). The bottom line is technology overloads our brain on every sensory and mental level and we need to reduce the overload to be productive.

We are all facing a crisis of attention. We are no longer willing to do a single task at a time, instead trying to tackle two or more tasks at a time when we know we cannot do both together as well as doing each separately. We are no longer able to sit with our thoughts without grabbing our smartphone. We check our messages while eating dinner with family or friends and we constantly grab a second screen when watching television.

Sadly, we are that squirrel with ADHD and these strategies will help wean you and your clients off of incessant checking in and learn to enjoy the benefits of focusing on a single task at a time. Work quality will improve, relationships will be preserved and life will seem calmer and less frenetic.

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Larry D. Rosen, Ph.D., has written for The National Psychologist since 1995 and has authored seven books, including The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World (MIT Press, 2016). He can be reached at

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