‘What Happens Next?’: Is Our Attention Slipping?

Monash Lens

Having trouble focusing lately? You’re not alone – and you probably already know it.

  • Susan Carland

    Academic, author and social commentator

  • Craig Hassed

    Professor, Centre for Consciousness and Contemplative Studies

  • Mark Bellgrove

    Professor (Research), Psychology

  • Hannah Kirk

    Senior Lecturer, Psychology, Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health

  • Timber Hawkeye

    Author, “Buddhist Boot Camp”

From TikTok to the Times, it seems everyone’s paying attention to, well, attention. During the pandemic lockdowns, many of us took up practices such as mindfulness and meditation, while others discovered that their struggles juggling tasks might be the result of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, (ADHD).

Read: I think I have ADHD. How do I get a diagnosis? What might it mean for me?

Season seven of Monash University’s podcast, What Happens Next?, kicks off with a focus on focus. Has the average attention span dropped in the age of social media and smartphones? What’s causing us to lose our focus? And why has there been a recent uptick in ADHD diagnoses among children and adults alike?

To answer these questions and more, host Dr Susan Carland sits down with a range of expert guests, including Monash University Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health neuroscientists Professor Mark Bellgrove and Dr Hannah Kirk; Professor Craig Hassed OAM, Director of Education at the University’s Centre for Consciousness and Contemplative Studies; and Timber Hawkeye, author of the bestselling book Buddhist Boot Camp.

So while we have your attention, sit back, relax, and find out what happens next.

“We have a lot of, often, negativity about ADHD. People often will say it’s a made-up condition, didn’t exist years ago, etc., etc. But the heritability estimates for ADHD are really on a par with other major mental conditions, whether it be schizophrenia or autism. I think it’s really important that we acknowledge that it is a biologically-driven genetic condition.”

Professor Mark Bellgrove

What Happens Next? will be back next week with part two of this series, “Can We Sharpen Our Focus?”.

If you’re enjoying the show, don’t forget to subscribe on your favourite podcast app, and rate or review What Happens Next? to help listeners like yourself discover it.

Transcript

[Music]

Dr Susan Carland: Welcome back to What Happens Next?, the podcast that examines some of the biggest challenges facing our world and asks the experts, what will happen if we don’t change? And what can we do to create a better future? I’m Dr Susan Carland. Keep listening to find out what happens next.

[Music]

Dr Hannah Kirk: We definitely have more distraction in our life and we can feel like our attention is being grabbed.

Professor Mark Bellgrove: In Australia there are probably between 850,000 and a million people with ADHD.

Professor Craig Hassed: So this sort of overload of notifications, not just on the computer but on your smartphone that’s sitting on the desk, this is wrenching the attention all over the place.

Timber Hawkeye: It’s kind of like, when you’re sitting down to watch Netflix or something like that, you’re flipping through and you’re just – it takes you an hour-and-a-half to decide what to watch because there are so many choices.

[Music]

Dr Susan Carland: In a world where we are constantly bombarded with a torrent of endless images, email alerts, text messages and all sorts of distractions, thanks. Mainly to digital devices, one question keeps raising its head Are we losing our focus?

[Music stops]

Dr Susan Carland: Hang on. What was I talking about? Oh, yeah, that’s right. Focus.

[Music starts]

Dr Susan Carland: In this episode we are focusing on focus. Is our ability to pay attention collapsing? Is there anything we can do to improve our attention span and ability to focus? Why has there been a recent uptick in ADHD diagnoses among adults?

We speak to experts who have dedicated their careers researching focus and attention, whether that be through the study of mindfulness, neurological science or through the contemplated teachings of Buddhism. Our guests in this series will also give us some tips on how we can help improve our focus.

So if you’re still with me at this point and haven’t been distracted by your phone or laptop, try and pay attention as we take a look at focus on What Happens Next?.

[Music stops]

Dr Susan Carland: Now, where was I?

[Phone ringtone, car horn, dialing, vibrations and computer notification sounds]

Dr Susan Carland: Focusing our mind on the present is a core principle of mindfulness. Our next guest, Professor Craig Hassed, has been studying mindfulness since before it was cool. An expert in this field for many years, I wanted to find out how mindfulness can help us focus.

Professor Craig Hassed: Hi, my name’s Craig Hassed and I’m the Director of Education at the Monash Centre for Consciousness and Contemplative Studies, also work in the Faculty of Medicine, and coordinate mindfulness programs around Monash.

Dr Susan Carland: Craig, welcome.

Professor Craig Hassed: Nice to be here.

Dr Susan Carland: When we’re not paying attention, when our mind does start to wander, what’s actually going on?

Professor Craig Hassed: Well, we go into a mode that’s called default mode. There’s a default mode network. Perhaps one way you could think of it – these are like the imagination circuits in your brain. But when we’re not mindful, we’ve wandered into that mode without even realising that we’ve done it.

So your partner’s talking and you’re kind of looking, but all of a sudden you realise you’re not hearing a word of what they’re saying because you’re rerunning something that happened during the day, or worrying about something tomorrow. So this sort of default mode is kind of like a distracted mode of mind.

When it’s really not working for us, the imagination circuits flapping in the wind, as it were, but we’re taking imagination to be real. So when we’re anxious, for example, about a future event – you’ve got a presentation to give, you got a meeting, got an interview, you got an exam.

So there we are, we could be sitting in a completely comfortable… We could be lying on our bed and it’s three in the morning, and all that’s actually happening in that moment is that the body’s lying on a really comfortable mattress, a head on a soft pillow, you know, warm doona. There is no stressor, there is no shark in the room, but we’re activating a fight-or-flight response based on what the mind’s imagining and projecting about the future, or reliving from the past. And that has very unhelpful effects on the body, especially if we’re doing it again, and again, and again.

So this default mode is like, often a dream world, and we don’t realise it. Now, mind you, these imagination circuits are very useful. Because when you sit down and you want to do something creative, work through a problem, brainstorm something, you use these circuits.

But when we do it in a mindful way, the executive functioning, the decision-making circuits – you’ve got that top-down awareness so you’re able to distinguish between imagination and reality, but you’re also able to sift the really useful thoughts from the less useful ones. And that’s a really helpful thing to do.

So it’s not like this default mode is, is bad and so on, but it’s, it’s not so useful if it becomes the master rather than the faithful servant, as I sometimes say. And, and that’s what’s often happening in states like depression, anxiety, etc., that these default circuits are just running by themselves, and a person’s got no way of reengaging back with present reality, stepping out of the internal rumination and worry, etc.

Dr Susan Carland: Right. So the helpful daydreaming is when I’m like, “I’ve got a difficult problem that I need to solve, or a solution, or something creative I need to come up with. I’m going to go for a walk and just let my mind wander, and see what if I can come up with something to, in a way, to solve this, this challenge, this – I need to come up with a solution for something at work.”

And that’s sort of a useful, productive way to do it. But when, like you said, intrusively, a fear about the future, or a panic about the past, is sort of overriding, it’s not really a problem-solving thing, it’s more a… just a rumination.

Professor Craig Hassed: Yeah, rumination and worry are two forms of default mental activity.

Timber Hawkeye: For me, focus is something we need to constantly adjust so that we see the whole picture. Otherwise, regardless of how your focus setting is set, you may be focused on a part of the picture but not the whole thing.

Dr Susan Carland: Timber Hawkeye is an international public speaker and bestselling author of Buddhist Boot Camp. He agrees that if we try to focus on too many things at once, we lose sight of what’s important. Sometimes, he says, we can spend too much time focusing on the wrong thing.

Timber Hawkeye: My teacher taught me single-pointed mindfulness. And in an age where we are encouraged to multitask –

[Dialing noises, beeping alarm, crying baby]

Timber Hawkeye: – he encouraged me to single task.

[Ding]

Timber Hawkeye: And I had to learn how to because that was such a foreign concept, because we, you know… So he would constantly ask me, “What are you focused on? What do you focus on?” Because like, if I’m chopping carrots, like, chop carrots, you know. Don’t think about what’s the next assignment.

And I’m going to finally answer your question with the story about the kid who wanted to study to be a great karate master. And so he traveled to find the most notorious one in Japan and asked him, “How long will I need to study in order to be the best karate-kai in the land?”.

And the master said, “Ten years.”.

And he said, “Well, what if I study and focus twice as hard as all the other students?”.

And the master said, “Twenty years.”.

And he goes, “Wait a minute, why? Why is it that when I focus, and I work twice as hard, it’s going to take me twice as long?”.

And he said, “Because when you have one eye on the future, you have one less eye on the present moment.”.

So that, to me, in a story form, really explains focus is we lose sight of things if we’re scattered and we need to just be present.

Dr Susan Carland: There’s a lot of conversation about focus and attention at the moment. Why do you think that is?

Timber Hawkeye: So we were raised, you know, going to school, and we looked at a blackboard and the teachers would write, you know, with chalk and we would take notes, and we learned that way. We learned from reading and writing and having conversation.

And so our ability to absorb information was very different. It was… it was very different soil in which to plant seeds.

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