This article is part of a series called “How to Human,” interviews with memoirists that explore how we tackle life’s alarms, marvels and bombshells.
One night when Casey Schwartz was in her first year of college, she found herself in a typical student quandary. She had an essay due the next day, but she hadn’t even read the book. She complained to a dorm mate, who offered her something that changed her life forever: a little blue pill called Adderall.
For 10 years Schwartz used the drug to get through school, work and life. Her latest book, “Attention: A Love Story,” details her journey on and off the drug, and dives deep into the history of how we pay attention, and to what.
Schwartz believes there is a silver lining of being cooped up in quarantine. We might all end up being a little less in love with our screens.
Earlier this month, HuffPost spoke to Schwartz about her book. This interview has been edited and condensed.
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When I became a mother, one thing I found very hard was I lost the ability to pay attention. I know you have a new baby, and here you are, a new mother in the middle of a pandemic and a global uprising. I wonder, how is your capacity for paying attention these days?
What a world, you know? I don’t feel like the baby has shattered my attention. I mean, he’s taken away my time, but I actually have noticed that whatever little writing assignments I’ve been doing in the months since he was born and through this whole book launch and this whole experience, if I can get an hour or 90 minutes to myself, I can make use of it, but the issue is really the time, how that has a way of just disappearing.
I am lucky because I have a job that allows me to work from home, but I have kids at home, and I am interrupted all of the time. There’s a part in your book where you talk about how memories form and what it takes to make a memory, and how constant distractions can stop those memories from imprinting. Sometimes I wonder what memories my kids will have of this time or I will have, since we are all so distracted by screens and interrupted a lot.
Yeah, that’s such a profound finding from neuroscience, that in order to remember something, you have to pay attention to it, and that distraction breeds forgetting. I actually think ― and I was thinking about this a lot before this moment ― but when we were just in the hell and the trauma of the coronavirus, especially in March and April, I felt so jittery. I was just checking The New York Times, checking the news, pulled in a million directions with anxiety. I think that’s where everyone was. I think we might look back on that time period and realize that it feels like this bizarre dream, because I don’t know how encoded it’s going to be in anyone’s memory because of that issue of the shattered attention and the distraction and the anxious distractibility.
I don’t know. I’ve been trying to record these really specific details about it, just so I can put myself back in that time and place when we get past it.
What have you been recording?
I love to notice the most surreal details of the moment. This is actually how I’ve stayed sane. Every afternoon, I would push my kid in the stroller and we would just go around the neighborhood, and I’d just be like, “What is the craziest detail about this moment right now?” Just stuff like the fact that the Greek restaurant on 7th Avenue is still perfectly set for dinner, like each table is set. Or like going to Union Market. It struck me as insane that fancy jazz was still playing while people were darting through in a hazmat suit. Just all these amazing time-and-place details that I guess we’ve also normalized very quickly.
Your book opens with you taking Adderall as a freshman in college. Will you walk me through that experience?
Of course. I got to college in 2000, and Adderall had only hit the market in the United States four years before. I barely knew what it was, and I went into my friend’s dorm room one night to tell her, “My God. I’ve got an essay due tomorrow. I haven’t even read the book. What am I going to do?” She was like, “Here, try an Adderall. I can’t stand them. They make me want to do cartwheels in the hall all night.” I don’t know what it is, but to her, this was a clear disqualification. For me, this was the most seductive advertisement because that’s my preferred state.
I took this blue pill and it was like this figurative key in a lock where you think, “Oh, this is the missing ingredient.” That night was like this fever pitch of inspiration. I was in the library all alone and then in the dorm room. The sun rose, I finished the essay, and I felt so emboldened and limitless, and just like, “Oh, if I take this pill, I can remove this huge block to comprehension,” which is attention. It gives you this feeling of superhuman attention, which is a total illusion, I’ve found.
It sounds like after college, you tried to get your own personal prescription in order to not have to rely on others?
I didn’t have ADHD, but I wound up being diagnosed with ADHD in my early 20s, but that was because I wanted to get a prescription of my own. After just taking Adderall in college whenever it was available, at 21 or 22, I just thought, “I’m just going to liberate it myself from people who have a stash and just get it for myself and live that life forever.” Then as my 20s wore on, it was so clear, that it was like this Faustian bargain. I mean I knew that the whole time, but I persisted and just got gradually farther and farther away from myself and farther and farther away from clarity.
It took until I was 30 to get off of it. I accidentally spent a decade on Adderall.
That’s remarkable. Do you actually have ADHD? Because it wasn’t clear in the book if that was something you knew how to talk the talk to get the prescription or if you had symptoms.
No, I don’t have ADHD. I mean, I don’t think I have ADHD, but the thing is, it’s so easy to believe that you do have ADHD in a way, especially because what’s interesting is Adderall and the internet came up hand-in-hand at the same time. I mean literally in the exact same chronology. So I think it’s very, very easy to feel the splintering of focus these days and to think like, “Oh, something is wrong with my attention. Well, it must be ADHD.” I think it’s easy to talk yourself into, and then I think in many cases, it’s easy to have it confirmed by a doctor if you want it to. That’s what happened to me.
What I love about your book is that it takes personal story and weaves it into history, the history of how we pay attention to the world. I know I am attracted to history that I can connect to in a personal way, and I wonder if that’s why you wanted to delve into the history of attention. It made me wonder about how you pitched the book.
I think it was just about a quest to understand attention and to understand also the impulse to want to patch ourselves back together in an age of distraction. We continue to seek out distraction, and just continuously pixelate our attention span. It’s this funny push-and-pull between, we keep throwing ourselves into the distraction factory, and then coming out and trying to seek wholeness again. I think it’s something about an exploration of that contradiction.
When did you know that this was the book that you wanted to write? Was it after you had come off of Adderall or after your other book?
I wrote about my experience with Adderall for an article in the Times. I still get emails from people who are like, “Oh, I’m in the exact same boat.” I mean, I’ve never gotten a response like that. And I just realized, “Oh, this is so much more universal than I even understood from just the raw statistics. This is a tidal wave of response.” That was part of what made me want to dig into this. But just also I was looking around for what my next idea would be, and one day, I just had this thought like, “Wow, we’ve given our attention away so casually.” It was the casualness of it that was the heartbreaking part. We just deferred to the Silicon Valley dictates. I’ve been like, “Sure, I’ll rush out and spend $800 on an iPhone that I then stare at all day,” without even raising an eyebrow.
I wanted to dig into that and just ― even though it doesn’t feel like a battle I’m going to win ― but I wanted to at least say, “Let’s explore why attention is precious.”
Do you think ― I mean, this is just my own personal observation ― that we’re in the dark ages of how we protect our ability to pay attention? Like at one point in recent history we didn’t wear sunscreen, and then scientists discovered a link to sun exposure and skin cancer, and now we all wear sunscreen. I wonder what’s being discovered now about attention. Do you think we will want to change or shift or protect our practice of paying attention?
That’s an interesting question. What I’ve found is that there’s no consensus at all among neuroscientists about, “Is technology changing our attention?” Some are like, “Obviously this is.” This guy who’s rather well-known, Adam Gazzaley at UCSF, goes around talking about the cognitive crisis we’re in. I mean to him, it’s clear. He’s already on to the, “What solutions can we come up with?” But this brilliant neuroscientist who I interviewed in the book, Mark Stokes, who runs the attention group at Oxford, he’s like, “There’s no proof saying that anything has changed. In fact, don’t you pay attention more on your phone? It’s just that you’re paying attention to a lot of different things and not in a sustained way, but in a shallow way” ― was, I think, his quote.
So I feel like there’s no consensus. What’s more compelling is to talk to teachers and professors, because they’re the ones who will tell you, “Oh, my students have trouble getting through books now.” They’re the ones who are seeing on the front lines the way that attention has changed since earlier in their careers.
What other details are they talking about besides their ability to actually read through several hundred pages?
I don’t know if I included any of them in the book, and I also didn’t want to play the role [of], “I feel like kids these days don’t read a book.” That doesn’t appeal to me at all. And by the way, I’m struggling too. This is not a book that’s judging; this is a book that’s in the battle, in the thick of the problem. Because, I mean, I’m such an Instagram addict. I feel like that’s my kryptonite. I’m battling it too. I didn’t dig into it with what they were observing with younger kids, but now that I have a baby, I’m thinking so much more about that than I was when I was writing the book.
Now that you’ve written this entire book and studied attention, are there new practices that you’re personally taking to push yourself to pay more attention?
Nothing that’s so prescriptive like putting my phone in grayscale or something like that, but I always think about how precious attention is, even when I’m wasting it. I think in a funny way, writing this book has made me even more resistant to cancel culture, because honestly, I feel like it’s so hard to pay attention to complexity and ambiguity online, and it’s so much easier to classify and denounce. I try to stay in this mode of curiosity and attention rather than assumption and cancellation. I’m not sure I’m answering your question, but it has changed my orientation towards the culture around me. I guess I do little things, like I try to take certain walks without my phone and things like that, but no. I don’t exactly have an attention regimen.
What’s something you would want for everyone, or readers, or just even in your circle, to know about their agency in attention? Having read this book, what should we take away?
I guess that the subject of attention goes so beyond the daily distraction, and it basically can determine the quality of your life. The stakes are as high as, “How do we treat other human beings?” ― ultimately what kind of life do we build for ourselves. Attention is the bedrock of these huge questions.
That’s so true. If it’s the bedrock … how do you stabilize that foundation?
I think the first step is being conscious and just waking up to the fact that if you’re not even aware of where your attention is going, because that’s the effect that technology wants to have, is that you lose awareness. You have to push back on that.
I actually think there’s a small chance that even as the world gets more virtual, we’ll come out of this corona thing less in love with our screens. Because I think it’s so obvious what the limitations are. We’re still horribly lonely, bored and sad because we have our screens yet we are lonely, bored and sad. During this moment of the protests, it was like the screens would not suffice. You needed bodies in the street.
I just think that these are the lessons that we are learning right now in real time.