As one internet user said over a decade ago, “If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.”. Attention remains as hot a commodity as ever with many actors vying for our precious “available brain time”.
Too Long; Didn’t ReadShort on time? Skip this sub-heading
Keep it Short
Emily and Maud, the editorial team at “The Choice”, asked me to write a TL;DR.
“A TL;DR?” I asked. “Too Long; Didn’t Read,” they replied. “That’s what you reply to a message that you didn’t read because it was too long. Rather than wasting precious energy reading a boring text, why not read a summary? It does the trick. For The Choice, it’s an article of no more than 700 words on a recent event or book that captured your interest.”
It takes time to make it snappy
Finding a subject for this TL;DR was no easy task.
While channel surfing, I came across a miniseries on ARTE titled “Brain Time: A Precious Commodity”. It featured an interview with Gérald Bronner, sociology professor and author of the essay “Apocalypse cognitive” (PUF), which tackles the issue of available brain time, as well as the ways in which our attention is naturally drawn to certain signals. The perfect subject for a TL;DR!
I immediately stopped watching TV, scrolling social media and playing online games to devote a maximum of (available brain) time to reading the text and writing this article. It proved to take far more energy than I could have imagined. Suffice to say that my dopamine reward circuit was sorely tested! And it’s this circuit that’s at the heart of Gérald Bronner’s cognitive apocalypse.
Just a moment of your time
So that you can optimise this precious capital of yours (it should be clear which one), here is my summary of Gérald Bronner’s essay in less than two pages, with my secret aim to make you want to flick through its pages yourself. It will not be a waste of time, I promise you.
Really? You don’t have time?
It all starts with one observation. Never, in all the history of humanity, have we had access to as much available brain time, time that we can devote to our favourite activities after finishing our daily tasks (sleeping, eating, working, etc.).
With our life expectancy increased, work hours reduced and time spent on household tasks decreased, we have more free time to relax, have fun, read, create, invent, socialise, dream, and so on.
At the same time, the colossus that is the internet gives us free access to an enormous quantity of information that is constantly growing each day. It’s the perfect environment for us to spend a good amount of this available brain time satisfying our natural thirst for knowledge.
Can you see the irony of this fine story coming?
My time is precious
The irony lies in the fact that the operators of this amazing cognitive market work within a quasi-anarchic, deregulated system.
The global war for attention is raging. And nothing is off-limits when trying to make your voice heard in this cacophony, practically a big bang of information, with the aim of holding onto as much of this “precious treasure”, i.e. our attention, as possible.
And they found the weakness in the system: our brain!
Three million years? That should be enough time!
Our Homo sapiens brain is the fruit of nearly three million years of evolution, and has existed for nearly three hundred thousand years, but it has not evolved much since. It remains subject to certain constant factors that grab our attention. They come from our strategies for survival and perpetuating the species, despite the control we have nowadays over our environment, making it less hostile.
These constants have created fast, energy-saving cognitive routines with the aim of focusing our attention on any signal that supports or endangers our survival.
So, what are they? Well, sex (perpetuating the species); fear, conflict, anger and indignation (signals of danger); surprise (setting off our curiosity and need to explore); and ego (our role in society).
And when we respond positively to these calls for our attention (which were historically indispensable to our survival), we are rewarded by delightful shots of pleasure in the form of dopamine coming from our temporal lobe, which controls our selective attention. No results without the addictive dopamine!
Time is money
And of course, it’s this “weakness” that certain unscrupulous peddlers of information use to sell their junk. By creating objects for attention that are essentially based around these constants, they lead us into cognitive tunneling, where they try to keep our attention for as long as possible. And to provide us with these objects for attention, they “editorialise the world” so that it becomes a receptacle for our need for short-term pleasure.
Gérald Bronner’s apocalypse is to be taken in the etymological sense of the word, not as the “end of the world” but a “revelation”. It shows us that we are only Homo sapiens whose brain mechanisms can be open doors, leading us into irrationality. In the end, it will reveal our true aspirations.
There’s still time to act
But we also know how to defend ourselves. The “executive functions” of our frontal lobe are there to set up our long-term strategies and help us make well-thought-out decisions to target our happiness more than our pleasure. It is at the source of our inventiveness and creativity. It also rewards us by offering serotonin, which regulates our mood, ability to learn and motivation.
Serotonin and dopamine are in competition, one capable of cancelling out the effects of the other. They are both essential to our survival and balance. The right amounts of each are key to the best use of our precious available brain time. So let’s not deprive ourselves of the pleasures of a good film, of a nice chat with friends online, but let’s remain vigilant.
Let’s be aware of the attention traps that are set before us, intended to fill us with dopamine. Let’s take care of our frontal lobe with other activities, like reading, creative activities, sports, IRL meetings, meditation, and so on.
Anyway, on that note, I’m going back to my series…
If you have any time left
As a bonus: Dopamine Or Why You’re Addicted to Apps
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not the position of ESCP Business School.