What if the problem is not too many distractions, but too little that’s worth focusing on?
The 21st century is a time of over-stimulation. Everything around us keeps going faster. And the faster it goes, the harder it is to keep up and feel satisfied. Emails, notifications, ads, bite-sized entertainment on TikTok and Instagram. Even non-fiction authors now tend to split their chapters into two to three sub-sections, as if the reader’s attention span couldn’t cope with anything longer.
Michael Easter, author of Scarcity Brain: Fix Your Craving Mindset and Rewire Your Habits to Thrive with Enough, thinks the problem lies not with over-stimulation with technology but with under-stimulation with everything else.
Here’s Easter speaking with Brett McKay from Art of Manliness episode 930, slightly edited to fit in this post:
We’re understimulated in the way that humans for two and a half million years evolved to be stimulated.
We never had digital media in our life until about 100 years ago.
And then you see radio creep in and people start listening to it for three hours a day, and then TV really rises in the ’50s.
And TV went from people watching zero hours in 1950 to the average person I think watching four hours by 1960 a day.
So you have this creep of media that is stimulating, but at the same time, we’ve lost this other form of stimulation, which requires hard work and effort in a natural environment like humans had to do for all of time.
I think we’ve just traded it.
I would say for the vast majority of people, like we don’t wanna be out hunting and gathering, we don’t wanna be braving the elements every single day.
But I do think that a result of that is that we’ve had to look for other forms of stimulation, and those other forms of stimulation haven’t always necessarily netted a positive in our life when you think about a lot of the behaviors that you see people do today.
Easter compares the stimulation we get from our office jobs and entertainment on the couch with the high-stake, high-effort lifestyle humans evolved for. Life is so safe and comfortable these days that it leaves those parts of our brains that evolved to ensure our survival in the wild bored. With that kind of boredom come all sorts of addictions and over-consumptions.
“For the vast majority of people,” Easter adds, “we don’t wanna be out hunting and gathering, we don’t wanna be braving the elements every single day. But I do think that a result of that is that we’ve had to look for other forms of stimulation, and those other forms of stimulation haven’t always necessarily netted a positive in our life when you think about a lot of the behaviors that you see people do today.”
One of Easter’s proposals is to replace our shallow, cheap entertainment with active, outdoorsy alternatives. “What’s more exciting? Climbing up a dangerous mountain or watching someone climb up a dangerous mountain on TikTok. Like obviously, it’s the climbing up a dangerous mountain. Right? That’s the thing that you go home and you go, “Oh my God, that trip changed my life.” You remember that forever.”
The problem of under-stimulation comes from shallowness. The fifteen-second TikToks and the paint-by-number, committee-written movies we’ve seen in the past years are two faces of the same underlying lack of depth. And the same can be said at work, where so many are trapped in bullshit jobs. Even the lucky few who work on something fulfilling have to navigate infinite inboxes and all sorts of unnecessary process toil.
As much as you can, look for entertainment and work that is intellectually stimulating and challenging. Replace YouTube shorts with the masterpieces of your favorite movie genre. Replace scrolling through X posts with long-form newsletters and books.
At work, keep the shallow at bay with timeboxing, then volunteer for the complex problems that no one else wants to tackle. Look for projects that stretch your skills and develop mastery.
I couldn’t find research with replicated results on under-stimulation — Easter cites studies done on pigeons – but the theory resonates with me. Regardless of how grounded it is in neuroscience, it offers a good mental model for those seeking to spend their time in activities they won’t regret doing. The jury might still be out on the effects of today’s environment on our minds compared to the wilder ones we evolved in, but you can’t go wrong in looking for stimulation through depth and quality instead of shallowness and quantity.
What are meaningful things can you do more of? What shallow activities can you remove to make time for them?