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Ep. 141: Maggie Jackson - The Attention Renaissance

March 04, 2021 Sucheta Kamath Season 1 Episode 141
Full PreFrontal
Ep. 141: Maggie Jackson - The Attention Renaissance
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Full PreFrontal
Ep. 141: Maggie Jackson - The Attention Renaissance
Mar 04, 2021 Season 1 Episode 141
Sucheta Kamath

What is limited, valuable, and scarce? Attention. As society as a whole tries to navigate the new terrain where attention is the commodity supporting a large part of the economy, it is imperative that humans understand that attention is the gateway to information processing and “knowing what to pay attention to” is probably far more important than simply paying attention.

Since the act of paying attention presents itself in more than one form such as listening, loving, cooperating, collaborating or even being generous and altruistic, we need to build brains that know how to engage their attention and direct it towards intentions so that decisions are made that serve the needs that go beyond the current moment or the current self. 

On this episode, award-winning author and journalist known for her pioneering writings exploring social trends, particularly technology’s impact on humanity, Maggie Jackson, joins Sucheta Kamath to talk about why fractured attention often leaves us feeling scattered, fragmented and frustrated. If what Susan Sontag’s words “Attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager. Stay eager” are true, then we all must participate in the Attentional Renaissance.

About Maggie Jackson
Maggie Jackson is an award-winning author and journalist known for her pioneering writings exploring social trends, particularly technology’s impact on humanity. Her acclaimed book Distracted (Second Ed., 2018) kickstarted a global conversation on the steep costs of fragmenting our attention. Winner of the prestigious 2020 Dorothy Lee Book Award for excellence in technology criticism, Distracted was compared by FastCompany.com to Rachel Carson's Silent Spring for its prescient critique of technology’s excesses. The book helped inspire Google’s recent digital well-being initiative. A former Boston Globe contributing columnist, Jackson’s commentary and articles have appeared in media worldwide, including the New York Times, NPR, and the noted design-and-philosophy journal New Philosopher. A graduate of Yale University and of the London School of Economics with highest honors, Jackson has won numerous awards and fellowships, including a Visiting Fellowship at the Bard Graduate Center (2016). She lives in New York and Rhode Island. Visit her website: maggie-jackson.com

Book:

Article:

About Host, Sucheta Kamath
Sucheta Kamath, is an award-winning speech-language pathologist, a TEDx speaker, a celebrated community leader, and the founder and CEO of ExQ®. As an EdTech entrepreneur, Sucheta has designed ExQ's personalized digital learning curriculum/tool that empowers middle and high school students to develop self-awareness and strategic thinking skills through the mastery of Executive Function and social-emotional competence.

Support the show (https://mailchi.mp/7c848462e96f/full-prefrontal-sign-up)

Show Notes Transcript

What is limited, valuable, and scarce? Attention. As society as a whole tries to navigate the new terrain where attention is the commodity supporting a large part of the economy, it is imperative that humans understand that attention is the gateway to information processing and “knowing what to pay attention to” is probably far more important than simply paying attention.

Since the act of paying attention presents itself in more than one form such as listening, loving, cooperating, collaborating or even being generous and altruistic, we need to build brains that know how to engage their attention and direct it towards intentions so that decisions are made that serve the needs that go beyond the current moment or the current self. 

On this episode, award-winning author and journalist known for her pioneering writings exploring social trends, particularly technology’s impact on humanity, Maggie Jackson, joins Sucheta Kamath to talk about why fractured attention often leaves us feeling scattered, fragmented and frustrated. If what Susan Sontag’s words “Attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager. Stay eager” are true, then we all must participate in the Attentional Renaissance.

About Maggie Jackson
Maggie Jackson is an award-winning author and journalist known for her pioneering writings exploring social trends, particularly technology’s impact on humanity. Her acclaimed book Distracted (Second Ed., 2018) kickstarted a global conversation on the steep costs of fragmenting our attention. Winner of the prestigious 2020 Dorothy Lee Book Award for excellence in technology criticism, Distracted was compared by FastCompany.com to Rachel Carson's Silent Spring for its prescient critique of technology’s excesses. The book helped inspire Google’s recent digital well-being initiative. A former Boston Globe contributing columnist, Jackson’s commentary and articles have appeared in media worldwide, including the New York Times, NPR, and the noted design-and-philosophy journal New Philosopher. A graduate of Yale University and of the London School of Economics with highest honors, Jackson has won numerous awards and fellowships, including a Visiting Fellowship at the Bard Graduate Center (2016). She lives in New York and Rhode Island. Visit her website: maggie-jackson.com

Book:

Article:

About Host, Sucheta Kamath
Sucheta Kamath, is an award-winning speech-language pathologist, a TEDx speaker, a celebrated community leader, and the founder and CEO of ExQ®. As an EdTech entrepreneur, Sucheta has designed ExQ's personalized digital learning curriculum/tool that empowers middle and high school students to develop self-awareness and strategic thinking skills through the mastery of Executive Function and social-emotional competence.

Support the show (https://mailchi.mp/7c848462e96f/full-prefrontal-sign-up)

Sucheta Kamath: Welcome to another episode of Full PreFrontal. My mission is to help people understand that their brain's prefrontal cortex, at its best acts as, as an orchestra conductor, directing actions guiding emotions, tweaking responses, calibrating decisions in order to create a beautiful, harmonious symphony of well lived life. But the most critical element of that is attention. And it's such a joy to speak about attention because I grew up in a culture where sitting still doing nothing, and expecting no change of scene was routine. On top of that, I have spent the last 25 years of my career teaching and coaching those minds whose fundamental struggle is in paying attention. Often, they don't seem to understand that that attention is the gateway to information processing and knowing what to pay attention to, is as important as paying attention. And I have seen the beauty in well cultivated attention and what a gift it can be, to, to present somebody with this gift of attention with great care and generosity. I love Susan Sontag. What she says, attention is vitality. It connects you with others, it makes you eager, and stay eager. So with great pleasure and joy, I introduce you to a steam an amazing and incredible guest today, Maggie Jackson. She is an award winning author, and a journalist known for her pioneering writing, exploring social trends, particularly technology's impact on humanity. Her acclaimed book, Distracted, which the second edition just came out in 2018 kickstarted a global conversation on the steep cost of fragmented attention, winning the prestigious 2020 Dorothy Lee Book Award of Excellence in technology criticism. Distracted was compared by FastCompany.com to Rachel Carson's Silent Spring for its prescient critique of technologies access. The book helped inspire Google's recent digital well-being initiative, a former Boston Globe contributing columnist, Maggie's commentary and articles have appeared in media worldwide, including New York Times, NPR, and the noted design and philosophy journal, the New Philosopher, and I can go on and on with her accolades, but you should listen to her as she will tell us everything we need to know about attention. Welcome, Maggie, welcome to the podcast.

Maggie Jackson: Thank you so much. Thank you for your kind words, it's a delight to be with you.

Sucheta Kamath: Thank you. So I asked this of my guests, because we talk about prefrontal cortex, executive function and self regulation, which really are the key hallmark skills for self awareness and self knowledge. So I would love to just know, since you study attention and distractions, when did you as a young learner become aware of your attention abilities? And did you have good attention? Were you a distractible kid? Or did you master your learning because of your attention?

Maggie Jackson: Oh, that's such a, those are great questions. And actually, no one has ever asked me that before. Yeah, that's really interesting. You know, it's funny, because I think attention is life, as you were saying in the introduction, attention is, you know, everything, it's, it's meant, it matters so much to life. And yet, so many of us aren't really acutely aware of it. And I count myself as one for most of my, of course, my childhood. For my, you know, some part of my adulthood, I wasn't at all aware of attention. And I have to say, I was probably, I think I'm a mix. I'm not really sure I've actually taken neurological tests, and I sort of fit you know, about middle ground when it comes to certain attentional skills. But I it's like, it's a skill, I guess, that I've always subliminally or unconsciously practiced, because I, I value deep listening, I value being present in the moment, I value following a train of thought, and these are some of the skills I'm sure we'll talk about. So I wasn't really explicitly hanging out. I wasn't really, I didn't know anything about attention until I began to study today's technologies. And I wanted to get a grip on this slippery, slippery animal called, you know, today's technologies. I looked in the history books, I looked at the science, and suddenly literally in the library one day as I was just just beginning, this book, distracted long time ago, I woke up to the fact that it's all about attention. And so I i think i was reading a book about the art historical concept of being absorbed in something, but it clicked for me that I really needed if I was going to understand today's technological world, I needed to understand attention. And from there, you know, I, I have just fallen into this deep well, I guess, or beautiful sort of endless horizon of learning.

Sucheta Kamath: You know, your answer takes me to so many places. Uh, one thing that I think deeply connects with me is the sounds like you grew up in a culture where these skills were valued. And, and you kind of have nurtured them, which is such a tender loving care to give to your attention. I remember when I was a child, this is probably going to sound very strange. But my father used to make us do this exercise, and this is probably gonna freak people out. But he would light a lamp which is DHEA, which is an oil lamp in a dark room. And we would, I particularly was asked to sit as a way to build strength, and to sit in a room still and stare at the the flame of the lamp. That is something I grew up doing. And, and then I when I went to college, and I asked like, you know, this is Indian culture, maybe everybody did that, and No, nobody did that. So I just, I think that kind of simple exercise was so incredibly valuable, because it just showed how incredibly incapable you are to pay attention unless you pay attention to it. You know, I

Maggie Jackson: mean, precisely, because it is a I mean, I in some ways, I don't like to use the term mental muscle, because that's kind of a cliche, and it's not doesn't really speak to the wonders of attention. one of the foremost attention scientists, Mike Posner, whose work I wrote about, he, you know, compares or has discovered that attention is an organ system, it's more akin to your digestion or your circulatory system that conveys its complexity, you know, there are different parts, and there are different aspects of attention. But your point is so correct that it's something that you need to practice, you need to, you know, develop this skill. And that's another thing, I think that's a very, very important starting point for people to understand is that it doesn't come automatically. And I and I feel very strongly than in a culture where we are able to download so much, or to click on this or to you know, it's not just the pace, it's, it's the not just the automaticity and the instantaneity of what we're surrounded by. But it's, you know, it's that what what we're lacking when we're only surviving on a steady diet of that kind of click. And there are studies now that show that just a short bit of googling, actually not only gives people a kind of cognitive hubris, they think they know more than they do. But I think really importantly, they're less willing to struggle with a problem later. So there's this idea that it comes easily and, and that's not to say that attention is something that is rocket science and for astrophysicists, and something that you know, your child can't learn, because it's so monstrous. I mean, I used to write about work life balance, and sometimes people felt as though that concept was the mountain the Everest now we need work life balance, when really it's a matter of small steps, and understanding what it is we want and treasure and value, and particularly with attention, of course, understanding what is the cognition? And maybe I'll take a minute right now to introduce people to the three types of attention. Yes,

Sucheta Kamath: lovely. You you actually kick kickstarted, and save me a question. So yes, please tell us a little bit about the set, it set the stage for defining attention, and the parts of attention which often and if I may interject one quick thought, as you were saying, you know, I did neuroanatomy as my first year as an undergraduate speech pathology student. And we when I saw the map of the brain, it showed motor mapping, which is the area in the brain that's consumed by or the allocation of resources to the in the area of the brain, and you won't believe it. The I don't know if you remember those old sketches where the hand and your mouth is taken up a lot of space. Yeah, because I'm a speech pathologist, there was such over emphasis on motor planning with execution or production, which is the motor system needs to be mapped out. Not a single image was ever shown regarding how what kind of systems brain occupies when we talk about attention because it's all pervasive. And it just made me think that we didn't even know to ask that question. It was not even top of the mind for people. Attention will

Maggie Jackson: be there. It was only a decade or so ago that scientists began to decode how we could study attention. What really, if it has been one of the world's greatest mental mysteries? What is attention, and if you're right, it's because people were thinking about the brain. In modular terms, the vision is here, the language is there, that is true. But now the foremost, you know, understanding of the brain leads us to understand about its connectionist orientation, that it is a network, but not in the computer sense in the sense of an organic living, pulsing, changeable kind of entity. And I think that's really important. So that's a 10th. But But having said that attention is, in some ways simple to understand. And it this will ring a bell, I think, for people who haven't thought about it precisely before, they're now considered three types of attention. The first is focus, of course, that is what the first type of attention to develop in babies, and scientifically it's called orienting, they need to orient to a caregiver or to a danger in their environment, it's gone, it's considered or the metaphor that even scientists use is the spotlight or the flashlight of the mind. And that's really an important, and that's why people talk about focus as if it is attention. But at the same time, you know, there is the second type of attention, which is awareness called alerting. So in other words, I can be focusing on you right now, but I can be half asleep, you know, as you are sometimes in a lecture. And so alerting and and orienting go hand in hand. And but they're not the same thing. And finally, there is the, you know, executive attention. And that is the sort of part of the executive mind that allows us to have to pursue a certain object, we want to pay attention to this, not that there's a decision making process. That's, you know, akin to the symphony conductors are very close ties with the prefrontal cortex. And so these three types of attention work together, and yet they are separate. And I think that that brings a bill to people, you know, that what, what attention is, and all of those are really important, very, very important.

Sucheta Kamath: You know, so I have to tell you, when 10 years ago, when your book came out, I was bowled over, because here we are in the field of neuroscience and actual a clinician who's working with patients. And and I said, Oh, my God, this journalist is able to capture and describe, and really intimate people or warn them. If you don't take this seriously, it's going to be a problem. And I felt that the even the neuroscientists themselves, were not speaking that way. You know, they were just compartmentalizing their own work. They were saying you're on your own, you'll figure it out. And you are the probably the first one. You know, I remember Daniel Pink, you know, Thomas Friedman, coming and talking about 21st century skills. You know, at the turn of the century that there was a huge, huge discussion about this 21st century is going to be technology century, do we have enough skills? And people then your book came and you actually woke people up from the slumber that don't think about technology? Think about your skills. So it's not the go and get those skills? No, no, these skills? Can you talk to that? And I have one more question about this, you know, James, William James, rather, in 1890. I mean, 1890 wrote this, the faculty of voluntarily bringing back our wandering attention over and over, is the root of judgment character, and will, do you think that still holds true?

Maggie Jackson: Yes, absolutely. And of course, he was so ahead of his time. And then yet, the fact that he was discussing attention, in his brilliance shows, in some ways that it's it is a issue for human humanity, you know, forever, you know, probably all periods of time have tangled to some extent, although we now have the science. And I think, yes, you touched on a really important point, which is, these skills that I'm talking about are vehicles, they are, you know, what trance allows the mind to be in the position to think to make judgments. I mean, this idea of having focus is really related to a number of concepts. It's related to the executive function concept of working memory, you know, the memory that you are able to have two for different data so that you can have that in at hand to use, you know, for information processing. Well, that's really related to Focus, which is the boundary making the flashlight around that what what you want to pay attention to. It's also related, I might say, in consciousness studies, that, you know, there's a concept called the Global workspace. And that is, you know, that pertains to the fact that only when you're consciously focusing on something, can you then can the human mind reason or, you know, think about it at the next level, and the next level, and next, build a chain of thought. So you can see how these concepts all work. And I think I feel like attention is a way we grasp something and sort of gently hold it in front of us, you know, we are alert to its details and its manifestations, we are focusing on it. So this is what's important, not this and that, and that, and this and that. And finally, we are making that, you know, that that sets the stage for the kind of judgment. And it's really important to understand that when, for instance, I think one of the primary characteristics of today's technology is that is it fragments us whether we are preyed upon by these, you know, very clever gadgets and the type of algorithms they subject us to, or whether we're just tempted and a Lord, you know, it's a mix. We are very much splintering, multi tasking, layering, the moment time splicing, and losing the integrity of the moment. And I think that they, you know, now studies are showing the long term costs of that kind of behavior on the attention, which can lead us to think so you can begin to see heavy multitaskers are not just distracted, but they also remember things less, all of what's going

Sucheta Kamath: They can do deep work.

Maggie Jackson: Yeah, exactly. They're cutting short the opportunities to focus and pay attention, and then to follow that with the kind of reflective judgment, which we can also talk further about. So it's really important to tie these things together, so that we then see the money this is really it's sort of an epic chance that the human has it's it's it's, it's quantum it's, it's vast, it's, it's everything we've evolved toward is this moment of attention, and so that we can reflect in that, you know, in that kind of an Executive function and use the skills of executive function to do it well.

Sucheta Kamath: You know, as you were speaking about inter connectivity to technology, this pre technology. So, again, going back to my field, when we work with patients with concussions and brain injuries, and any neurological alterations, or developmental disorders that affect the attentional system, memory system, and an executive function system, we often talked about attention and the opposite side of that coin being distractions. And we talked about distractions and internal distractions and external distractions. And then the external distractions, we categorize them. So when we did the metacognitive training, you would talk about visual distractions, auditory distractions, and olfactory distractions and sensory distractions. And then internally, you talk about, you know, your physical need mental distractions and psychological distractions. And so when you create a treatment plan, you're teaching people, this self regulatory process of how to regulate all aspects of this distractibility. And I cannot tell you, when technology I think 2011 as you know, a lot of work talks about when the handheld technology when the iPhones or phones became ubiquitous to every person's existence, I felt people suddenly developed neurological dysfunction. Like I felt very competent people were behaving like the most incompetent patients that I had seen, who have the bandwidth or actually wisdom to seek help. And now everybody's walking around with impairment in a way.

Maggie Jackson: I know. Exactly.

Sucheta Kamath: Tell us a little bit about the way in your work. You titled your book also Distracted. Why did you not title it Attention versus Distracted? And what what is the most surprising or the and you warn us about if we don't get a handle on it, this can be like a decline of humanity. So speak a little bit about that global impact as well as the everyday impact of distractions? 

Maggie Jackson: Sure, yes, yes. Well, I, as I mentioned a minute ago, those studies are now beginning to be made. I mean, you know, 10 years ago, people weren't really studying memory. Well, they weren't studying multitasking. So now we're beginning to understand not just how fragment how lost the moment is. When you're distracted, but what are the long term costs of living in that kind of lifestyle, and that's really important. So yes, people are running around with memory impairments. I mean, just the other there are, you know, scientists who are really seriously considering a rise in Alzheimer's because of memory problems caused by technology, because when you constantly constantly undercut the minds ability to encode memory, and to, you know, do the kind of repetitive work necessary to deeply and embed memory into through, you know, through the hippocampus, into our brains, you know, you're cutting, you're cutting out the ability of the mind to add to these wonderful associational networks of knowledge. So they're almost like our mind, and our knowledge is like a tree of life, it's constantly sending out branches and connecting, and everything is moving all the time. And so when you're constantly looking up something, you know, you're you're you're you're, you're googling something, you're giving up the chance to go within and to traverse the network's associations of knowledge that you have, and, and in doing so, strengthen them. So just, for instance, it's really important to understand that, you know, you know, for instance, when we're using technology, when we're offloading our memory, for instance, to technology, we're depending on it for GPS, or we're depending on to look up little facts and things like that, we're not actually then we're losing the chance to go into what are the knowledge stores, the knowledge networks, which are kind of like, you know, our knowledge is like a tree of life, it's basically connected, and there are associations, and it's always changing. And so my association between the words gold and ship will be different than yours, and creative people have much more ability to vibrant the vastness of there may be so we're cutting short that, that those that that strengthening of the memory networks, that we can, you know, when that we can have when we just reach for the device to do it for us, and even something as something as seemingly, you know, benign or frustrating as forgetting something, if you are searching for a word, or the name of a painter, and you don't Google it, and you look in memory for who did that painting, and what was Picasso's period called, and you don't find it, you're still strengthening your mind. That's why scientists say forgetting is a friend to learning. Because, you know, you are still actually navigating, and, and, and utilizing the brain in ways that we're not when we're depending upon these machines. So it's undercutting our attention. It's decimating our memory. And therefore our stores of wisdom. I've had professors tell me that basically, if a student is taking psych 101, multitasking their way through the lectures, you know, kind of googling and doing this, etc, they might be able to cram for the test and get a good grade. But by the time they come back in the spring, the professors told me, it's as if they did not take psych 101. Because the memory that they have is so ephemeral, and so elusive, that and you can think of a surgeon perhaps who's in medical school, who's doing that same thing, asking their way through the lesson, well, they come to a problem, the patient is bleeding in the operating room, they might be able to then do something, they take the most common solution, but they also won't be able to reach in make new connections into their knowledge, because their knowledge doors are sort of depleted, and and they won't be able to be inventive and operating. So we're losing wisdom, and we're losing invention as as a result of this downloadable society.

Sucheta Kamath: Wow. Okay, so I'm going to pause for a second for myself, because this takes me to so many places. I've had a learning scientist who studied learning and memory. And Daniel Willingham, for example. And he too was talking about this idea of learning if you think about new learning requires you to analyze and synthesize information. And part of that encoding process in memory is to see in from new incoming information, put take it apart and see connections with prior knowledge. And a lot of students are struggling to activate prior knowledge because one, they think in compartments and as you said, they're looking for energy. Rather than forming a big picture, exactly stock is a very important cognitive skill that good learning can lend itself to. And and that is one big loss that I see that when I work with students, particularly I specialized in middle school, high school and college, and one of the struggles they have is they look at exam as an obstacle in the in them completing the grade. opportunity to grow their mind, and I'm not being critical of them. I'm just thinking they're thinking, am I my schoolwork is coming in the way of my life. And my What is my life is and and so I always take interviews of students and say, Show me what has entertained you this week. And I kid you not. Yesterday, I had a session and one of the I've never seen this before, but one of the kids he is in college, first year college at Georgia Tech, and he showed me a video and the video was these tribal people tasting Western food. Oh, okay. Very interesting, zero value to life. But absolutely early entertaining. And then we just turned around to his history, introductory history he's taking, and he has no interest in it. So I was just saying you you looked at tribalism, do you have any commentary to make from a perspective of history? And he said, Oh, I never thought about that way, you know, so. So here is a formal learning and informal interest in something that he is doing for fun. And that disconnect is what I'm saying. So that to me is a real danger to culture as you talk about. So what Tell me why, why are you so concerned about if this continues? And why did even Google wake up and take notice of your, you know, the sounding of alarm? What is the ramification if nothing changes?

Maggie Jackson: Yes, yeah, no, I was really heartened that Google executives told me that my book was an inspiration for their recent huge initiative on digital well being, I was really shocked. So thank you for mentioning that. And while I think that there are ramifications are ones we can already see around us. You know, for instance, just for an example, you know, consider the polarization, the divisiveness in our country and in the world, and, you know, a prejudice, and it is usually built on stereotyped categorizations that people make automatically and quickly. So the mind goes back to its, you know, sort of primitive roots of making instant decisions based on the kind of heuristics or shortcuts, they're not like us. So they're anatomy, and then that kind of thing. We do that all the time. We do that every day. And we can't, in many ways help that. But at the same time, you know, when we're skipping from fact, to fact, and from thing to thing, I mean, only 24% of, you know, posts online, are actually read, 75% are shared or retweeted, etc, just based on the headline. And that is a kind of cursory judgment. Of course, it feeds you know, the pace of life, it allows us to multitask, it allows us to skip from singing, to skiing thing, etc, all the value systems that we adore, and yet at the same time, what does that do? We're making cursory judgments all the time about one another. We're misunderstanding. I was at a digital conference, big, you know, big New York digital conference a few years ago. And these were people from the advertising industry. And they were in charge for a very, very big, big companies for the media, digital media budgets, etc. Well, it was so interesting, because I was giving a talk on distraction and attention. And there were screens everywhere, and I could see the Twitter thread. And later I asked for the organizers to send me the Twitter thread of the audience. And I examined it closely. And it was so interesting, the people who were had the most enthusiasm, who were tweeting the most, who were, you know, very, very interested in the topic, were the ones who had misunderstood what I had said again, and again, they got the facts wrong, they weren't getting what I was trying to say they were twisting it and not consciously at all. They were, you know, loving the talk and completely getting it wrong because they were trying to tweet at the same time. And I thought, bingo, I mean, that just shows in real life. We can't, but I always say to people is that knowing doesn't happen at a glance. You know, we can, we can go through our routines we can, you know, look at what we've looked at before we can do the same old commute, you know, etc, etc, etc. Yes, that's instantly automatic and heuristic, as I mentioned, but knowing knowledge, wisdom, all of what makes for humanity's greatest achievements cannot happen at a glance. And that is what we're doing when we're, you know, sort of undercutting our attention in these ways, is assuming that wisdom is instantaneous. And so the repercussions are enormous for tribalism, or polarization for the, you know, the problems of climate change are messy, interconnected, difficult. Just because we, this planet has an emergency, and we are truly in crisis doesn't need that we need quick fixes, we won't get anywhere with that. And so and then, you know, the fate of democracy, the human rights, I see all of these issues that are balanced very precariously upon the whether or not we can, you know, finally reclaim our attentional capacities and, and cultivate these skills, talk about it to our children talk about it at work, put attention front and center, it's, it's, it's our very survival that's at stake as humans. And and and, of course, as you mentioned a minute ago, it's very much who we are as humans. So that's what I've devoted the last 20 years to trying to understand what makes us human, and, you know, vis-a-vis, the robot, and this is a, you know, incredibly, increasingly important that, you know, what the human can do, versus the robot or the algorithm, etc. And, you know, it's what we need to focus on creating the skills that we we need through attention and reflection, in order to understand what kind of robot we want, and what what are our strengths, what are its strengths, and then and so and retain, you know, our flexible, you know, constantly calibrated control of our technology.

Sucheta Kamath: You know, so you just summed up your beautiful quote, which is, we are on the verge of losing our capacity as a society for deep sustained focus. In short, we are slipping towards a new dark age, I hope we we wake up and somebody or this book, in your talks like yours, wake people up to the reality that the reflection is essential element of being a are shifting from our lizard brain to wizard brain is through reflection. So it is actually we propelled our prefrontal system to, you know, grow and develop. And that's why we have culture and we have this incredible capacity for compassion. And then we are regressing with slight interception of technology. So, tell me the last piece that I want to talk about his role of creativity. And and as you know, the default mode network, during which we we are hanging back, let loose, it's like, you know, letting, letting connections make their connections or no supervisory system inter intercepting or kind of interfering with with the way we make connections of ideas that were free floating, can that be damaged because of this highly distractible, inter kind of interlude of technology with our daily lives?

Maggie Jackson: Yes. Now, that's a fantastic question. And some scientists are beginning to think that's exactly what might happen. Because when we are constantly exterior focused, when we're constantly Of course, googling that fact, or focusing on something else, we don't have, we're not allowing the default mode network, which is one another one of those systems of the brain to actually do its work. And so we're constantly again, cutting short the opportunity for the skills that the default mode gives us, such as self awareness and self reflection. And then, you know, I love the idea that the default mode is at the root of reverie or danger of that. Yeah, and it's, it's it's not that the default mode represents the drifting mind. And of course, our mind is so capable of drifting. But at the same time, the default mode is at the core of the sort of associational streams of thought that aren't as tightly controlled, tightly goal oriented. So the executive network actually does is has been seen in play with the default mode all the time. That was a surprise to many scientists. But that's because if you think about a daydream, which by the way, are very therapeutic, consoling and future oriented I'm thinking about what the party will be like, I'm a little nervous about it, I'm thinking about with the meeting tomorrow with my boss, it's a sort of mental rehearsal. It's not usually, you know, a complete free for all, you know, you're usually not just jumping from thing to thing, a daydream is a cohesive thing. It's just that it's a little more, you know, floaty and drifting. And, and that's a very, very, very important part of our mind. And that's something that, you know, again, we can undercut by distracting ourselves. distraction, by the way, usually means to be pulled to something secondary in modern lingo, we think of it as I was distracted by my baby crying in the next room when I was trying to write this memo. But distraction a few 100 years ago, literally, in Shakespeare's time, one of the original meanings meant to be fragmented to be pulled in pieces. So there's a great quote from Shakespeare's play Caesar to say Caesars troops were distracted on the battlefield, they were scattered, basically. And that's in a really important, I think, modern concept of distractions, the scattering the fragmentation, I think we need to kind of hold on to that. No, that doesn't mean so distraction, as fragmentation as being pulled away to what you've been doing, doesn't mean that you don't want to daydream, you know, a daydream might distract you, by some definition, it might intrude on your thought. And yet, it might be something that your mind is trying to process that you might need to spend time on, even might be a way to loosen up your thinking on the creative problem in front of you. So I think it's really important with attention, and I think with matters of the mind, to stay away from tight definitions. You know, focus isn't like a laser beam, no, it's sort of like a beautiful spotlight that swivels and roams and, you know, and, and, and, and expands and contracts. And, and the default mode is not, you know, not something that's a kind of distraction, that, you know, distraction and attention are not no too good and evil kind of system, we have to, we have to think we need both of them. Exactly, we need all of these different types of thinking. But the important part is, we need to marry the depth of thinking with the kind of the breadth, and we need to, we need to read cultivate our skill in choosing among these types of thinking, through attention. And through reflection.

Sucheta Kamath: I love that. When I explain to my patients, the way I say it, is think about a floodlight, like you know, when you have a chopper and you run away, so there's like a huge, concentrated attention. So that's executive attention giving a defined boundary to large area but specific, but then you have the flashlight, but the flashlight pointed inwards is that self awareness. And then the last is the moonlight the moonlight is when you take a stroll, that's your default mode network, where you have this, like a good amount of guidance, but no defined outlines. And, and but you have this ambience, there's a feeling of warmth, where you're wandering peacefully. And, and, you know, as you know, the research actually suggests that after doing some intense learning, you got to allow the brain to just veg out because only then that solidification consolidation of memory can really happen. And to me, most people, particularly students I'm talking about, they take that time to do something very intense, like Instagram.

Maggie Jackson: Exactly. 

Sucheta Kamath: Which is completely lost on them, you know? 

Maggie Jackson: Exactly, yes, even people with Alzheimer's have been shown to improve their memory if they're allowed to just do nothing between learning tasks. So people with Alzheimer's usually don't learn, obviously, and their memory but you know, it just shows you that that we need, you know, again, it speaks to the diversity of thinking that we need, we need the slower pace, and we need pausing. And we need, you know, intense kinds of thinking. And we need chains and trails of thought, and then as well to step off those pathways. So it's it's very important to understand that all of this is important for the mind.

Sucheta Kamath: So that brings us to the last question, I want you to leave us with a sense of hope. And there are a lot of things we can do. And you mentioned a few of them. What are some of the most important and essential steps we can take to manage our inherent nature of technology inducing distractions. But sick and second part is, how are you dealing with your life? And where have you made massive changes? Because what you have seen and read and researched?

Maggie Jackson: Yes, yeah, no, that's great. Those are two great questions. So what? What can we all do? I think that, you know, we can think small, that just as with work life balance, or dieting, or any monumental change you want to make in your life, it's very important to start small. So if we're trying to practice focus, you know, we have to set low expectations for ourselves, I think that, you know, a few minutes of focus is an achievement, if you're really focusing, practice these small moments. And with focus, I always say, eat dessert first. In other words, do something that you are inclined to be absorbed in, and then try to extend your focus and practice your focus. And of course, meditation is a great way to do that, too. So practice these skills, have a focus, and attention. And then there's so much we can do. And, you know, I think that it's really important as well, to know, I was talking internally, but I think it's really important, of course, to curate our environment, to think about, you know, shutting the office door or closing 16 windows on your screen, you know, virtually or physically, we can make changes to our environment. I often set an alarm clock, if I'm trying to focus on something, but I know I have a four o'clock call for this podcast. Well, then I'll set the alarm for quarter to four. And then my mind is free to focus on what I hadn't been thinking about not Is it time yet. Is it time yet is a time? So we're making it easy. I mean, I always think does the Dalai Lama meditate in Time Square? Well, yes, the Dalai Lama can meditate in Time Square. But on the other hand, is it easy for him on a quiet mountainside? Yes. So you know, we're setting the stage, it's kind of like, you don't go jogging in your high heels, you put on the jogging shoes, and you you create the conditions, to then practice the focus, but but focus, and attention and thinking don't come automatically, we need to have that kind of practice. And what have I done? Well, I guess I'm just a lot more aware of Yes, uh, curating the environment, I'm a lot more aware of how I mean, there, there are times when I'm focusing really intensively on a very, very difficult chapter, I'm writing a new book, and, you know, tangling within wrestling with the overarching theme of the chapter and what am I trying to say. And then there are other times when I'm surfing around, and, and, you know, my mind and my computer are kind of hyperlinking. And that's okay, you know, I draw on these, these are kind of arrows in our quiver that we can use explicitly and understand, you know, what it takes and what what you know, what skills, what skills we can draw upon in our lives. And it's wonderful that there are these different types of attention, and that they can deliver us to the Moment of Reflection or good deep listening or on self understanding, and even just the skills of attention that we have can allow us to be there for the great daydream.

Sucheta Kamath: I love that and so much humility, I think your own journey has taught you so much. And you have leaned into it and said, I surrender, I am going to accept the limitations that can be you know, triplicated if I don't kind of make changes in myself, you know, two weeks ago, I did a one week of silence, silence noble silence, as part of my mindfulness practice. And last week, which is now two weeks, I did a digital detox so only kept two hour windows during which I connected to the internet. And, and, and now, I have once a month, a Day of Silence. That's one thing that I'm practicing to really kind of allow this introspection to happen. But you are absolutely right. I think if there is no deliberate effort, it is not going to happen. But that wouldn't come unless you have the wisdom or humility to accept that the world is much stronger than your mind is unless you make it stronger.

Maggie Jackson: And I just like to add one more very important detail for all of us, I think to move forward, and that is to speak up. I now speak up about attention. For instance, I won't do an interview for my research with a scientist or for my journalism. While someone is driving, no matter what the circumstance, they can be a Nobel Prize winning scientist, I've had to, I've had to say no. And I can tell in the person's voice when they call me. in me, it's not the sound of the telephone call, it's the way they sound. And I say, Well, are you driving? And or they'll say, Well, can I can set it up at this hour, because I'll be driving and I say, I'm sorry, I have a hard and fast I had to actually say no to that children's pediatrician once it wasn't for an emergency. But I won't talk to someone, not only do they sound off and not very intelligent, they're not doing their best for an interview that secondly, and I won't talk to friends, because it's not a great conversation. But also, I don't want to be culpable. So I think we need to be attentional activists. I actually try to gently call out situations, when I think people are undercutting wanna, you know, I'm not trying to be the cop. But I say, I will say that people will maybe this isn't a good or to my husband, you know, he'll be listening to, you know, why am I my newest problem with the book or something? And, and he's multitasking through something else? Oh, well, this isn't a moment. Good moment. Let's wait till after dinner, you know, till you're finished cooking. And I think that, you know, we can be able to tinker again, like work like them tinker. We don't have to go the mile all the time, tinker and work with each other. But speak up for attention. Let's be activists for attention, because it is so important. And we'll all benefit.

Sucheta Kamath: Well, I am going to take this to heart. You know, one thing you just pointed out, I have not been an activist. I have been an advocate, a lukewarm advocate. I'm a fierce therapist, but I've not gone into the social realm on calling people out. But I will tell you, I have done that with my husband and my my children that I'll be saying and they look up, I just stopped and they said, No, you can continue. And I said, I always say no. Sounds like you have something important to address. I can wait. And that has done the put No, no, no. Speak up. Tell me what you're thinking. So Maggie, as we end our conversation, would you mind sharing one or two of your favorite books that you think our listeners will find valuable in their journey to make themselves better?

Maggie Jackson: Sure. Well, it's interesting. The first thing that comes to mind, although I mostly read nonfiction, and I mostly read for my work, is the novel Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. And you know, while you might say that's so passe, or that is so you know, long ago. Today, we're just finding again and again and again, you know, what an incredible forward thinker Jane Austen was politically feminist, etc. You know, her elevation of comedy her mom, no way. She's these two The modern day. But what I love about that book, particularly is because it shows so clearly how blind we are to others perspectives. And by that we can say how blind we are to other ideas of the world or other perspectives just on the moment. And so, you know, it's really a story about two people who woefully misunderstood one another. But that's the human condition. And I think that's, that has so many different lessons for attention and reflection and for thinking and for humanity.

Sucheta Kamath: You know, it's so funny, you said that, two weeks ago, before my Silent Retreat began, I watched Jane Austen's that same movie, a movie by Keira Knightley. And the reason I watched that, because there's a neuroscientist from Stanford who studies gossip. And he said, one of the most important, you know, piece of literature and a movie you should watch and read and study is Jane Austen, because she understood how people fail to theorize the minds of others. And here you are mentioning that that's so cool.

Maggie Jackson: The other book I would come to mind. And I mean, these are a little bit random, in some ways, but I guess they, you know, indicate something of either long term interests of mine, or that a book that I've returned to again, and again, is a very slim volume, called the Rosetta Stone. It's a nonfiction book. It's part of a series about the ancient world, I think it's the series is edited by Mary Beard. It's the book is by a professor at Cambridge University of Cambridge called John Ray, who's an Egyptology specialist. But this book, again, shows multiple different perspectives. It's talking about the how languages are born, you know, the great cultural competition between different nations for you know, who would preserve or steal other's cultures. It talks about, you know, what are all the different cultures in Egypt at the time of the creation of the Rosetta Stone, which was basically like a public announcement of a Pharaohs wishes, and how they you know, how different cultures lived side by side in that age. So this book tells so many different stories, and so beautifully, I've read it four or five times, and I recommend it to everyone. It's just a lovely glimpse of the past. But yet it does give us so many perspectives on important aspects of the world. So I love that kind of, and it's about codebreaking where could you go wrong?

Sucheta Kamath: Well, thank you, thank you. This is going to be on my list. I have not read that book. So I'm going to make it an immediate urgent goal for myself. And Maggie, I cannot thank you for your time, your wisdom and incredibly fun engaging conversation. And and thank you everybody who tuned in today, if you love what you hear, please recommend our podcast to everybody you know, and like us on social media. I'm probably not doing a great job of kind of plugging things in this podcast, but please, you take the ball and roll with it. And once again, thank you for being with us today and have a wonderful evening.

Maggie Jackson: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure. Thank you for having me here.