The battle to liberate our attention

“The liberation of our attention could be the fight of moral and political of our time. “This sentence, taken from an essay published last year by James Williams, the ex-ethicist at Google, reflects the immense influence of smartphones on our lives. However, regain control over our use of these connected devices will be a daunting task, because they are tailor-made to capture our attention and hold it.

If human attention is easily hameçonnée by what makes “beep” sound, which flashes, or vibrates, it is because it is a survival reflex deeply ingrained in us. Our attention focuses on the element that has the greatest chance of upsetting our environment and require a response.

By coveting our attention, application designers are seeking to win the “competition” between the signals “, illustrates Michael Graziano, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Princeton University specializing on this faculty of the mind. “The brain has limited resources, they will need to deploy intelligently,” he explains in an interview with The Duty. When several pieces of information enter the brain, only the strongest signal is analyzed in detail. “

Listen to professor William Blum who presents his tips to reduce our dependence to smart phones.

Attention is essential to find a predator, to find berries or go feed a baby in tears. However, for the first time in the history of mankind, the source of novelty lies at the bottom of our pocket.

When the phone takes us out of the present moment, our cognitive resources must be redirected to a different task. We lose a few moments of concentration each time. Work-mode multitasking, the cell phone never far away, would thus be a losing strategy. “We see in the experiences that people are becoming slow in the task that they perform when their attention is constantly diverted,” says Mr. Graziano.

And it doesn’t stop there. “Smart phones are much more than attract our attention, says the psychologist : they feed directly on our system of reward. “

A case of dopamine

To create a need, application designers rely on a recipe in four steps. A trigger draws our attention, such as the appearance of a notification on Facebook. An opportunity for action presents itself then to us — scroll the list of alerts, for example. Then, he takes a pinch of uncertainty. Finally, we have the option we invest in this interaction, by leaving a message or sharing a publication.

When a pleasant thing is hiding behind the dot to notification, a release of dopamine is released in our brain. This neurotransmitter causes a feeling of pleasure. The human body normally makes use of it to reinforce some positive behaviors, such as eating, sex, or social approval.

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To force that this cycle of reward a recurrence of, the discharge of dopamine comes to precede the moment in which the user learns what is in the notification. Thus, only the trigger is sufficient to obtain the moment of pleasure, even if the information obtained in the end does not contribute to well-being.

The uncertain nature of the reward is essential to properly hook the user, ” explains Jacob Amnon Suissa, a professor at the School of social work at UQAM and the author of Are we too connected ?, published Presses de l’université du Québec in 2017. The variable reinforcement has been discovered thanks to experiments on animals of the psychologist and behaviourist B. F. Skinner, in the middle of the Twentieth century. “This theory was first applied to the gaming industry and chance,” says Dr. Suissa. On the machine at the casino, you still have three pineapple ; but to win, you need four. On the phone, you never know when you are going to receive a request or a message. This translates into an alert state is constant. “

In fact, even when it is not producing any audible warning, visual or tactile, a smart phone can have a distraction sufficient to decrease the cognitive resources available to perform other tasks. Researchers in the us are offered in 2017 they would do so because the brain is constantly busy fighting the attention is deployed automatically to the phone.

An addiction ?

Can we speak of addiction to the phone ? Medically, this is not a designation accepted, note Valérie Van Mourik, a clinician and researcher at the Centre de réadaptation en dépendance de Montréal, which often works with addicted to video games (an addiction recognized by the world health Organization since last June). In regards to the users inordinate mobile devices, the specialist prefers to talk of hyper-connectivity — a complex social phenomenon, which may cause adverse effects.

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One thing is certain, behind the appeal almost irresistible to smart phones, there are brain mechanisms very similar to those that cause addictions to substances or gambling.

“Before, it was said that the games of chance and money were only a behavioral dependence, asks Ms Van Mourik. But no, it happens actually something in the brain. Cocaine increases the levels of dopamine in the brain, it is the same thing that is happening here. These are the same reward pathways that are activated. “

A previous version of this text, not final, has been erroneously published in our print edition on Saturday. Our excuses.

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