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Attention & Love — Casey Schwartz & Freedom Matters

Casey Schwartz Freedom Matters

Accepting that attention can only ever be imperfect

Casey Schwartz is a writer in New York City, where she lives with her husband and son. She is the author of Attention, a Love Story (Pantheon, 2020) and In the Mind Fields (Pantheon, 2015). She also contributes regularly to the New York Times. Her most recent book came from an article she wrote for the New York Times Magazine about spending a decade addicted to Adderall.

In this episode, we learn about her journey with the drug Adderall and how after years of trying to quit it, she re-entered the world eyes wide open to face a new era where technology was also playing havoc with our attention.

We also discuss some of the great philosophers and how they perceive attention, and we reflect on her own acceptance that attention can only ever be imperfect.

This episode is part of our series on “Self”, where we explore how our technology impacts some of the most important aspects of being human.

Don’t miss the other episodes in the series with Krista Tippett, Susie Alegre, Jillian Horton, Michael Sacasas, and Sharath Jeevan.

Host and Producer: Georgie Powell Sentient Digital

Music and audio production: Toccare Philip Amalong


Casey: It is so clearly a comment from Simone Weil, the French mystic and philosopher who died very, very young in the 1940s. And who said, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” And I find that comments so radical because when you think about how rarely one human being fully just turns to another and gives total unconditional attention. And it’s only getting more and more uncommon. 

So, I always think about her words, and I think about them whenever I look at Twitter and I see the instantaneous, summing up and dismissal of one human being to another. It’s just, that it’s so the opposite of that sentiment.

Georgie: Welcome to Freedom Matters, where we explore the intersection of technology, productivity, and digital well-being. I’m your host, Georgie Powell. And each episode, we’ll be talking to experts in productivity and digital wellness. We’ll be sharing their experiences on how to take back control of technology. We hope you leave feeling inspired, so let’s get to it.

This week, we speak with Casey Schwartz, author of the book ‘Attention, a Love Story. We discuss her journey with the drug Adderall and when after years of trying to quit it, she re-entered the world eyes wide open to face a new era where technology was also playing havoc with our attention. We discuss some of the great philosophers and how they perceive attention, and we reflect on her own acceptance that attention can only ever be imperfect. 

Casey, welcome to the Freedom Matters podcast. Thank you so much for joining us today. We’re really grateful to have you.

Casey: Oh, Georgie, I’m thrilled to be here.

Georgie: Casey’s book begins when she discovers Adderall. It changes the way that she understands attention, initially in a way that she perceives to be a good thing. It’s many years before she comes to realize how her attention has been severely limited by the drug. I asked her to tell the story of when she first came to know Adderall.

Casey: It came onto the market in the US in 1996. So, when I got to college a few years later, it was suddenly everywhere. But I was not familiar with it yet because ADD was still an uncommon diagnosis when I was in high school. And I’m at college, and I have an essay due the next day. I’m like woefully unprepared, haven’t read the book. 

Go to my old friend’s dorm room and she says, “Here, try this.” And she pulls out this sweaty tinfoil ball and there’s this blue pill inside. She says “I can’t stand it, it makes me do cartwheels down the hall all night.” 

So, no one could have said anything more seductive to me about any substance in the world. This was like the perfect advertisement. And I took this blue pill. I was up all night long. I read this book, I wrote this essay, and it felt like this euphoric revelation, that thinking could be steeped in pure pleasure and adrenaline, even. And it felt like a key in the lock. 

And I also felt, if this is how attention feels on Adderall, then my naked natural glitchy attention was clearly lacking. And so inevitably, I kept seeking these pills out. It never felt that good again. But I spent many, many hours in college on illicit supplies of Adderall in the deepest recesses of the library, obsessed with the text in front of me. 

And eventually got my own prescription. Because I feel like there’s so much wiggle room around the diagnosis of ADHD that it’s very easy to see yourself reflected in its descriptions. And I wound up spending my entire 20s taking Adderall. And it wasn’t until I was 30 years old, that I was finally able to get off this drug.

Georgie: And it took a long time, right? The journey in the book is really interesting, you know, you were addicted to Adderall.

Casey: You know, I mean, I’ve now spoken to so many people who had almost an identical story to mine in a lot of ways. Which is that the thing that’s so tricky and insidious about something like Adderall or Ritalin or Vyvanse, or there’s like now a whole squadron of these drugs is that these are not drugs for dropping out of the system. These are success drugs. 

These are drugs for people who want gold stars next to their names. They promise attention and focus on demand. So, it’s very confusing, because you’re taking these pills. bills, and ultimately, they can quite often backfire. I mean, not for everybody, they do help some people. Other people get into big trouble with them and I was in that second category. 

Georgie: Yeah. 

Casey: So, I wound up years into this thing feeling like quite unable to tell, okay, how do I really feel? What do I really want? What do I really care about? 

I’ve since read this really interesting neuroscientific research that when you take amphetamines, you quite literally get a kind of tunnel vision. Your field of vision and hearing are both narrow. 

And I mean, nothing has ever described so perfectly what my life was like when I was in the thick of that amphetamine pattern. Like I had narrow, a sense of narrowness where I lost sight of the forest for the tree.

Georgie: Actually, one of the quotes I wrote down from your book was this, “Boxing me into a smallness and causing me again and again, to entirely missed the point.” But you thought at the time, you had liquid sharp attention, but actually, it was attention placed on a very small piece of the pie.

Casey: Yes, exactly. I mean, attention is a very hot commodity these days, right? Because our attention is so besieged on a daily basis, and we’re all feeling it, we’re all aware of it. 

When you pick up a book, you have to ask yourself, “Okay, is this worth the effort of my attention?” And I think we’re all acutely tuned in to the fact that our attention is quite limited now. So, you know, I had the illusion when I was taking Adderall like this is sort of a solution, right? Like, because I have unlimited attention in this pill bottle. 

But ultimately, what I realized is that I was not taking in, I was not absorbing so much of the things that I actually cared about.

Georgie: Yeah. So, interesting. Your book is really a quest to understand what attention is. And I know you referenced Nick Carr, who’s also been a guest on the podcast talking about how actually, it wasn’t until the birth of books that we actually started to think about how we could focus our minds and pay attention to something that required thought. 

But thinking about that balance between laser-focused attention, and then the ability to absorb everything that is around you; how have you come to understand attention? What is the balance? What does attention mean to you?

Casey: First of all, let me just say I loved Nicholas Carr’s book ‘The Shallows’. And I remember when it came out, it was in no way was it yet trendy to say, you know, to express ambivalence about tech and big tech and life online. 

And he was very much the first one out there doing that. And the first one saying very seriously, like, look, how is this going to change our brain. And I just adored that book and I adored him for doing that. 

But I think there’s this inherent ambiguity to what attention is. And when you start interviewing attention scientists and attention researchers, they’ll tell you like there’s no good consensus on what attention is. 

They know that if you put a human brain into an fMRI machine, and someone’s really focused on a task, you’ll see certain patterns of brainwaves and certain parallel firing of different regions in the brain. But yet, it’s still something that’s a little bit hard to define. It’s elusive. And it only really became a respectable subject in the 1800s for scientists to pursue. 

One of the things I realized in the course of writing this book was like, I had this crazily sort of idealized notion of laser focus. But actually, where so much creativity and inspiration happen is by serendipity. It’s something you just happen to hear or a tone you just happen to pick up on. Or like you look out your window and happen to see an image that sparks an association. 

There’s a serenity and a tranquility required for that type of attention. And I ultimately felt for myself that I had to get off those pills in order to build in for more of that possibility.

Georgie: I was interested, in how Casey’s experience of laser focus differed from the state of flow, which is now lauded as the ultimate condition for deep work. Are we at risk of still narrowing our focus too much if we’re always chasing flow?

Casey: You know, I actually realized when I got off Adderall, oh, it’s an impediment to flow. For this was my experience anyway. Flow does not feel so oppressive. Flow does not feel nose to the grindstone. I mean, flow, and I’m sure your listeners know all about flow. 

But this was the idea popularized by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a wonderful man who I got to spend a little time with when I was reporting this book. And it’s that state where you suddenly look up and three hours have passed, and you’re not anxious, you’re not even totally thinking of yourself, you’re so absorbed in what’s in front of you. 

To me, it doesn’t feel jagged, it doesn’t feel tight, which is how I feel on Adderall, which is tight. It lacks that tightness. It’s more expansive. 

And one of the things that I loved about Csikszentmihalyi’s work on flow was his point that flow is actually one of the most consistent hallmarks for what people describe as a source of meaning in their lives. Like, in lives with lots of flow, those people are likely to say their life has more meaning. So, it’s actually one of the most consistently correlates of a good life. 

And research shows that the more that we’re doing this fragmented attention online, the less able we are to get into those deep states of flow. So, it’s just one of the many ways that I think this pattern of shattered attention really erodes our basic day-to-day happiness.

Georgie: So, let’s move on to the impact of tech and your kind of journey went from getting yourself off one drug, and then bingo, there’s another dopamine source waiting for you right around the corner. So, tell me how you realized that actually, your relationship with technology was also having–  was shifting your own relationship with your attention?

Casey: Yeah. I mean, Georgie, I’m sure you’ll remember that for years, like it felt like the only storyline about the internet was like, oh, this is such a positive development. And it’s also an inevitability. And there’s nothing to be done, but embrace this new way of being. But I always felt really ambivalent about this encroachment on to our private lives, really, that is big tech. 

So, I remember when I finally got off Adderall looking up, this was around 2013. and being like, Oh, wait, everyone is paying attention so differently now. Like, this is, you know, in the last 13 years, there’s been this drastic change in our society. 

Georgie: Yeah. 

Casey: And so when I was looking for a new book topic, and this was about now 2015, I just thought there’s nothing that seems more existentially crucial than the subject of attention. That’s what led me to make this one.

Georgie: It must be really interesting to come off Adderall and to, you know, be eyes wide open and to look around and see that other people’s attention was now being diverted by screens.

Casey: I mean, it did feel like there was this like, oh, we’ve — it’s already too late to do anything about that. There was that feeling of like this is, in some sense, futile.

Georgie: Yeah. Interesting. And then, and also, I’m not sure when this was, but I remember in your book, you talk about meeting with a researcher in neuroscience, who’s talking about actually, we are more attentive now than ever before.

We are. We’re consuming huge amounts of information, it just might not be in blocks. So, there’s always that challenge as well. It’s like, we are paying attention to a whole load of stuff, like that’s great.

Casey: That was a few years ago when neuroscientists and scientists want to be agnostic till all the data’s come in. And so their argument sometimes was, well, you’re paying attention even more now. Except I knew that didn’t line up with my experience. 

Because when I’m online reading something on the New York Times I’m not paying as deep attention as I am when I’m reading a copy of the Sunday Times in my hands and my phone’s in the other room. Because when I’m online, half my brain is constantly fighting the urge to simply switch to a different site. And we can feel these things.

Georgie: So, tell us more about what you’ve come to understand as attention and how technology is perhaps impacting it.

Casey: I was more interested in what attention has meant to great writers and thinkers through history than I was on the Silicon Valley aspect, which I feel is pretty well covered by other people. I was trying to figure out, okay, so every writer cares about attention, right? You can’t write without attention. 

So, how do I figure out which writers to include in my book? And I wound up picking a cast of people who became sort of obsessed with the subject of attention, people like Aldous Huxley, David Foster Wallace, Simone Weil, William James, the original philosopher king of attention. 

And as they thought more and more about attention, and wrote more and more about attention, it was so clear that for all of them, attention became this subject with like huge stakes. It was not about like sitting at your desk getting your work done. It was really about like how you conduct your life, how you treat other people. It was really this profoundly ethical subject. 

And for example, like David Foster Wallace, attention is your ability to imagine yourself in somebody else’s circumstances. So, it really goes to the heart of things like empathy and compassion. This is why attention is such a seductive topic. You can’t pin it down to one tiny compartment in life. It really is about how you live your life.

Georgie: Yeah. Do you think attention has gone too far? Because you also talked about this too, the kind of commoditization of attention, how now it’s such a buzzword, isn’t it? You know, there’s mindfulness training left, right, and center. Do you think there’s ever a danger with that?

Casey: I think you’re asking if it puts the onus onto the individual to try to like meditate their way out of the big tech mess. And it puts a little bit too much individual accountability, when in fact, we’re in a structural sort of clusterfuck, if I may say so. 

In a way, yes. Like I purposefully didn’t write about mindfulness in this book. First of all, because I don’t have a lifetime of experience and expertise with it. But also, because to me, it hasn’t been a solution. So, I’ve avoided the whole subject. 

So, I guess I must agree with you Georgie, on some level, that there’s this idea that, okay, so you go to your yoga studio and meditate, and you should be able to solve these issues. But in fact, they’re just so much more deep dive than that. 

Georgie: And I know you and your, you don’t talk about specifically what you think the solution should be, to the problem that we have with technology now. But where do you think we do go from here, when, as you say, it’s so much like a kind of systemic problem and one that’s quite difficult to unwind?

Casey: Right. It’s interesting. I definitely think that the first thing is just being conscious. When you’re in a bottomless Instagram scroll, you’re spending limited precious attention without thought. 

So, what writing this book helped me do was understand that attention is probably our most precious and powerful resource. It’s literally the gateway to everything meaningful that we care about in our lives. 

But you’re right, I did not venture into the territory of what to do about it. And it’s interesting, the writer Johann Hari just published a book called ‘Stolen Focus’, where he does offer solutions. And they’re things like, introducing a four-day workweek, and surveillance capitalism, changing American childhood. 

And I totally agree with all of the goals that he advocates for but it’s just, it’s interesting because right now none of them feels that doable, to me. And I know what he would say is no, we have done much bigger, more radical changes in society. But right now, I don’t — I just don’t know how we go from where we are to ending surveillance capitalism.

Georgie: Yeah. When you went through this journey, trying to understand what the tension meant to you, what do you think it helps you to understand about yourself?

Casey: I think writing this book helped me feel okay with my very imperfect attention. And I would hope that for everybody. Like, I never did the radical digital detox of someone like Cal Newport, and I never got perfect with attention, because I feel like we’re enmeshed in the systems we have now. 

And I just began to feel like imperfection is okay when it comes to attention. And I think chasing this idealized monastic style of attention can get a lot of people into trouble.

Georgie: In the way that you did with Adderall, or in the way that we try to monetize it and…

Casey: Yeah, exactly. Well, I think — No, I think people really like punish themselves and like beat themselves up over this waxing and waning of attention, when actually like the waxing and waning is built into what human attention always has been.

Georgie: And in the book, Casey talks exactly to this point, how we actually protect ourselves by limiting our attention to many things all the time. We apply filters to difficult and painful things so that we’re not frozen in the paralysis of too many things to carry. I asked Casey to explain more.

Casey: Think about like how we’re living right now. We’re literally being told our planet is doomed in the near term Yet, here we are like chatting on Zencastr, Georgie, going about our lives. I mean, it’s such a case study in human attention that we’re not just crippled over in agony like in a completely paralyzed state. 

So, the brain, yeah, there’s this psychoanalytic term selective inattention. And it’s this idea that anything that’s too painful, your mind just diverts attention away from, really. And it just goes to show the psychological layers that there are to human attention.

Georgie: So, then, looking back through the greats that you cover in your book, David Foster Wallace, Huxley, which kind of passing comment do you always keep with you? Which takeaway from them do you keep with you as this kind of mantle to hold up when you think about how to manage attention in your own life?

Casey: So, clearly a comment from Simone Weil, the French mystic and philosopher who died very, very young in the 1940s. And who said, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” And I find that comment so radical because when you think about how rarely one human being fully just turns to another and gives total unconditional attention. And it’s only getting more and more uncommon. 

So, I always think about her words, and I think about them whenever I look at Twitter and I see the instantaneous, summing up and dismissal of one human being to another. It’s just, that it’s so the opposite of that sentiment.

Georgie: Yeah, it’s beautiful. Casey, thank you so much for joining us today. It’s been absolutely fantastic to have you as a guest.

Casey: I loved talking, Georgie. 

Georgie: Bless you. 

Casey: Thank you.

Georgie: Thank you for joining us on Freedom Matters. If you like what you hear, then subscribe on your favorite platform. And until next time, we wish you happy, healthy, and productive days.