Zibby Owens: Hi, everybody. It’s Tuesday. I hope that you have had time to check out the link on my website,, the new site, the new website, and that you’ve been consuming the fabulous, exclusive content from authors who have been on my podcast like Gretchen Rubin and Claire Gibson and Elissa Altman and Nicole Kear and also a little essay from myself. I hope that you like it. Also, don’t forget to check out my Instagram Lives today. I do five a day, Monday through Friday at eleven AM. I have a great lineup. You’ll hear more about this new site and from some really fantastic authors. Be sure to check that out. Enjoy this podcast. We Found Time, go find yourself time too. I hope everybody’s doing okay during this quarantine. Bye.

I’m here today with Casey Schwartz who’s the author of Attention: A Love Story. A graduate of Brown University, Casey has a master’s degree in development neuroscience and psychoanalysis from University College London. Her first book, In the Mind Fields, was about the culture clash between the old and new ways of thinking about the mind and brain. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, Departures, New York, and many other publications. She currently lives in New York, in Brooklyn, with her husband and her new baby.

Welcome, Casey. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Casey Schwartz: Thank you, Zibby. I’m so thrilled to be here.

Zibby: Casey had a baby six weeks ago named Dash. She’s finally out of the house and out on the subway and back into the mainstream, so we’re going to go easy on her.

Casey: Don’t go too easy on me.

Zibby: Congratulations again. Attention: A Love Story, I loved this book. It was so good. It was part memoir, but then you did all this investigative research and wove it in all in the first-person tone. Actually, I should just ask you to describe it. Just so you know, I really love this book.

Casey: That’s so kind of you, really.

Zibby: Thanks. Anyway, tell listeners what Attention: A Love Story is about.

Casey: It’s about this quest that I’ve been on for probably the last four years to try and understand what attention is and how it connects to every aspect of building a meaningful life and why we need to fight to take it back from the screens that have inundated our lives.

Zibby: It’s also about your own journey and what made you on this quest to begin with.

Casey: Totally. This book is highly personal for me. In a sense, it started when I went off to college around the year 2000 and a friend handed me a little blue pill called Adderall, which had only been on the market for about four years at that point. I wound up spending ten-plus years kind of addicted to this so-called attention pill thinking this pill is necessary for me to succeed and achieve and pay attention. It was only when I was about thirty that I was able to get off because I understood that it had had, ironically, the opposite effect for me. It had shattered my attention. It was in that period of time that I became kind of fascinated by attention itself. Then a couple years later, I had this thought one day. It was such an emotional thought. Why are we giving away our attention so casually? This was about 2015, well into when screens had invaded, but I think before we’d all gotten a little disillusioned with Silicon Valley. It felt like such a pointless thought to have. The fight was over. Silicon Valley had won. It was still the one thing I felt like it was worth devoting my time to do my next book on. It was the one thing that I felt that groundswell of emotion; thought, I could live with this subject for years.

Zibby: You really delve deep. Even in this book you talked about the process that went into writing your last book and how you journeyed through a therapist’s — for years and years of transcripts with a stroke patient who was — you go into it. You stay with your topics for so long. It’s impressive.

Casey: No, not at all. That particular person was a pleasure to spend time with. He comes up in this book because this was a therapist who was working with a patient who had had a stroke and couldn’t speak. They did their therapy for seven years, somehow, together. He became, for me, an example of monumental, heroic attention. You try to decode a man’s language when he can barely get out five syllables.

Zibby: And yet wants to write down Bloomingdale’s.

Casey: Totally, still in a normal life of sorts.

Zibby: That really is such a nightmare, the idea that you could — to be trapped in your body.

Casey: Completely.

Zibby: I went to bed ruminating on how awful that is and how lucky we are even to be able to talk. Then you also go into things like a complete analysis of the total work of David Foster Wallace and have yourself peering over his balcony and how other people have written about attention. Tell me a little about that.

Casey: This book is both personal, it’s about my struggle with Adderall, my dad, my mom, psychedelic science, but there are also these four incredible writers who play a huge role in this book: David Foster Wallace, William James, Aldous Huxley, and Simone Weil. When I was first starting the book, I knew I wanted to include writers. How do you choose? because attention matters to every writer. I then, over the course of my research, realized all in the space of one month that for these four, attention had become an obsession. Attention for all four of them, in different ways, meant the world. In the case of David Foster Wallace, you can see it through Infinite Jest. It’s really as he got older and closer to his death at age forty-six that I think attention became an organizing principle for him. If you read his final novel, The Pale King, even the word attention is mentioned 150 times. That’s a book basically about boredom. It takes place at an IRS office in the middle of the country. It’s about how do you not go insane when you’re just plunged into tedium? I guess for him, the answer was attention.

Zibby: Wow. So why did you decide — I know you said you realized it could be something you would spend so much time on. When did you say, “I’m going to share all this personal stuff that happened with me. I’m going to put it all in a book. I’m going to put it out there. That’s what my next move is”? How did you feel about that? Do you ever have reservations about putting it all out there for people who didn’t maybe know that you had been going through this?

Casey: Actually, the Adderall section started as a piece that I did for The New York Times Magazine in 2016. By the time I wrote that piece, I’d been totally off Adderall, or basically totally off Adderall for three-plus years. It honestly felt like I was writing about another person. I was writing about this twentysomething. I knew her very well, but it was not quite me anymore. That gave me just enough distance to be able to be completely candid about the experience. Also by then, I’d heard so many stories about people just like me who had been stuck in this addiction for so long and all the ways that Adderall had kind of distorted their lives. I thought, you know what? This has to be told. I know that there are people out there going through this exact same thing. I didn’t have that many reservations about it. Maybe I had to convince myself, oh, no, this isn’t that personal, in order to do it.

Zibby: It’s so important that you did it, and so helpful.

Casey: I don’t know about that.

Zibby: No, it’s true. Every story that someone tells about their own experience ends up helping other people. Maybe somebody’s stuck in the same thing and then they read your book or they read your article. I think it’s great.

Casey: Well, thank you.

Zibby: You talk a lot about the relationship between addiction and attention and how they dovetail throughout.

Casey: This is actually one of David Foster Wallace’s great themes too. You can see it through Infinite Jest. I really realized they’re twined in this funny way because they have both have everything to do with being able to sit with yourself and sit with your own thoughts. What was driving me to reach for these amphetamines? It was this sense that I can’t be just here on my own without this chemical enhancement. I can’t face my own capacities and my own thoughts. I need to distort and alter. I think that in a way, when you’re compulsively reaching for your phone, it’s exactly the same impulse. It’s like, I’m terrified of sitting here in silence. I’m going to scroll through Instagram for the next ninety minutes. There’s that famous study that they did at University of Virginia in, I think it was 2014, where they found that a huge percentage of the subjects would rather receive electric shocks than be left alone with their own thoughts.

Zibby: That’s insane.

Casey: It was something like twenty-five percent were like, no, I’d rather be electrically shocked than have you take away my phone. Part of the puzzle of this book was trying to understand, what are we running away from? I think that that answer varies so much from person to person. There’s not a universal response to it, but it does seem to be a universal desire.

Zibby: I also found it interesting, the study — I’m going to forget the man who did the study — that said he didn’t think ADD/ADHD was genetic, but that it was a coping mechanism for not being able to deal with some of the less savory aspects of your own life. You don’t want to pay attention to that, and so your thoughts go every which way else. That predilection, almost, for that type of thinking gets passed on, but not through genetics. I didn’t say that very well.

Casey: I was so struck by that thought too. That is this doctor named Dr. Gabor Maté. He is a fascinating figure. His specialty is really addiction. Again, there’s this connection. He’s also written and spoken at length about attention. We spent a good amount of time together. His feeling is that little kids, they realize that anything stressful or painful or unsettling in the environment they’re in, they can escape by seeking distraction, internal/external distraction. It becomes a tool for them to survive. Then it turns later into a set of behaviors that’s then problematic when they’re school age. That gets diagnosed at ADHD. What was radical for me about Gabor’s ideas was that it was so emotion based, talking about attention through a lens of emotion rather than brain or intellect, but really about feeling.

Zibby: After all this research and your own experience, do you have a point of view about medicating children for ADD/ADHD, or adults?

Casey: It’s hard for me to answer because I have no doubt that there is definitely kids and adults out there who can be helped by Adderall or other medications like Adderall. I never had a legitimate case of ADHD. That said, it was insanely easy for me to get my own prescription. I think I accomplished it in forty minutes. I think that ADHD is still a very gray-zone diagnosis. It’s very easy to think you have it. Who among us doesn’t think we have ADHD from time to time? I think that’s there so much off-label or partially off-label use of it that you have to be just super aware of, do I need this? Am I being helped by it?

Zibby: It’s so funny. I had this period of time where I thought I was losing all my memory. I went to neurologists. I was like, “Something’s happening. I can’t remember anything.” It turns out that I was so focused on so many other things that I wasn’t imprinting the memories to begin with, which is exactly what you talked about in your book. I had MRIs and all this stuff. I was getting lost on the street.

Casey: What was going on around that?

Zibby: I had twins who were not sleeping. They were three and a half, four.

Casey: Oh, my god, say no more.

Zibby: We were out of our apartment staying in this temporary, awful housing situation while between apartments. Tantrums like crazy. I just started losing my mind. I was like, I can’t remember anything. Then I had to go get this neuropsych evaluation because I’ve never had attention problems either. I was great in school. Everything was fine. They’re like, “Maybe now you have attention problems.” I was like, I don’t have attention problems. I’m just doing a lot of stuff. Meanwhile, I can’t fill out a form correctly anymore. Finally they said, “It’s not that you have a memory disorder,” because I was like, oh, my gosh, I have early Alzheimer’s, something’s going on, but just that the things were not sticking to begin with, which stays with me as this haunting — am I paying attention enough that I can get anything in the bank?

Casey: I had no idea that there’s actually all this neuroscience research showing a definitive link between distraction and forgetting. It makes total sense. If you’re not paying attention to your own life, you’re actually not going to remember that much of it.

Zibby: That’s right. I was like, I can never remember if I wash my hair or not in the shower. Did I do it? Did I not do it? I wasn’t focused on it to begin with. Your body just goes on anyway. You had this sad moment, though, in the book, happy/sad kind of thing, where you got your first prescription after basically googling ADHD and figuring out what to say because you’re a smart person and anybody can figure out how to fool basically any doctor.

Casey: You don’t need to be that smart a person.

Zibby: You had this moment. You had some quote about how alone you felt, which of course I won’t be able to find. You said, “You felt suddenly entirely alone.” Okay, not such a big quote. Tell me about that moment on the street. You were in LA. You got your prescription. You walked back out.

Casey: I think I was twenty-two. I’d been taking Adderall whenever I could get my hands on it in college, but I never had my own prescription. I was tutoring kids and trying to take classes to be able to apply to graduate school. I’m in LA. It suddenly occurs to me, it would be so convenient to have my own prescription. I wouldn’t have to be dependent on whoever I could find. That was dangerously easy to accomplish. It was a forty-minute consultation with a young psychiatrist in LA. I come out onto the street. This wave of sadness came over me. I think it was because no one I was close to knew how deep into this dependency I had suddenly gotten myself, and also how far and how long this was going to turn out to go on. It was going to be eight more years of really being totally dependent on Adderall.

Zibby: You had another scene where you’re laying in bed. You had had an injury. Your mother was laying next to you. Your mom, by the way, we should discuss. Your mom, Marie Brenner, has been the number-one mentor in the writing world for me since I was a kid. She’s a friend of my parents. When I was going growing up and I was like, “I want to be a writer,” they were like, “I guess talk to Marie Brenner. We know her. She writes.” She has been so amazing to me. I remember her taking me — she doesn’t even remember this. She took me, when I was living in LA after college, to the book fair at UCLA, the LA Times Book Fair. She had a press pass. She got me into all these events. I was like, this is amazing. This is the coolest thing. She’s like, “Oh, did I go to that?”

Casey: Zibby, I love that coincidence and that connection so much because I know that you know that my mom’s a force of nature. She’s this South Texan turned New Yorker with this insatiable lust for life. We are so close. Even though I spent a decade on this pill, she didn’t exactly know. I think she knew something, but she didn’t really know anything, the extent of it.

Zibby: Your mom, what you said in the book about her, about her constantly asking questions, she’s a lean forward, let me ask a thousand questions a minute type of person. You were saying that that is kind of now good manners for you. You said, “She’s the ultimate question asker, as much in everyday life as in her life as a journalist. In fact, for her, and now unavoidably for me, asking questions has always been the very definition of good manners to show curiosity about another human being and mean it.”

Casey: People make fun of both my mother and me for the incessant questions that we have, so I don’t know if everyone would agree that it’s good manners. It’s been such a model for my life. My mother’s curiosity has been the very lifeblood of her whole career and her whole existence. She was always the mother who was saying, “Let’s go see. Let’s go meet. Let’s put everything aside. Let’s go to India. Let’s go find out.” I think for her, curiosity, and therefore the paying attention that comes with curiosity, is this way of getting out of your own self and your own little predicament or your own depression and being absorbed by the people or the places around you. It’s this tonic and this recipe for happiness.

Zibby: Your dad also is an author. You go into detail about what happened. We don’t have to discuss. You can or cannot.

Casey: That’s fine.

Zibby: He was a victim, essentially, of the Me Too movement. He lost his prestigious job at WNYC without cause, without an explanation. He was sort of shown the door. The ripple effects that it had in your family and that there’s another side of the coin of this movement.

Casey: We don’t know what happened because we never found out. My father had been on the radio in New York playing the American Songbook and Sinatra and all of it for about twenty-plus years. At the age of eighty, he was one of, I think it was the eight or nine men that NPR fired. I can’t really speak to any of the other cases. In his case, we just never really found out why. I don’t know if there was cause or not, but we weren’t told. Therefore if there had been, he never had a chance to take responsibility or apologize or defend himself. It was a strange happening that coincidentally took place while I was buried in research for the attention book. I went back and forth for so long about whether I wanted to write about it because it’s such a risky subject to talk about. It’s understandably so fraught and so important a movement and a moment, a culture reckoning. I did want to share the experience that we went through. I’ll never forget the feeling of — his suspension was announced. Suddenly, I’m seeing this moral outrage spread on Twitter within sixty minutes of people just jumping to conclusions without absolutely no information and no facts, nothing, denouncing him, reclassifying him as a sexual predator with zero information. It was such a learning moment for me.

Zibby: Wow. That’s tough.

Casey: It was. It really was. It was probably one of the hardest things we’ve ever gone through as a family.

Zibby: You were obviously so on the front lines. You were like, “Then I had this call with my dad’s lawyer. Then I did this.” I could see you.

Casey: I was enmeshed. I couldn’t help it. As a reporter, I was enmeshed because I really was trying to extract as much information as I could. As a daughter, I was involved. My own attention was completely hijacked for probably two or three months. Living through that was like nothing I’ve ever been through before.

Zibby: I’m so sorry that all went down.

Casey: Thank you. But here we are. He’s okay.

Zibby: Tell me a little more about your process. You mentioned you were deep in the research when this all happened. Give me a visual of how you work and what you do with all the research you collect. Is it all over your room and sticky notes on the wall? What type of process?

Casey: It’s funny because my desk is the dining room table that’s in our living room and that’s now, as of six weeks ago, the diaper changing table because I just had a baby. I write in the morning. I write for three or four hours right as soon as I wake up. No, it’s not that much paperwork flying all over the place, thank god. It’s mostly whatever I’m reading is right next to me. My notebook’s right next to me. It’s me at that computer in those first, precious morning hours.

Zibby: How do you go back? How do you have the confidence? I know this must happen to so many authors, where you have to start from scratch. You have to redo and redo. How do you just stay with it? How did you do it? What do you think?

Casey: I feel like it’s almost irrational, the tenacity that you need to finish a book. It’s almost crazy. It’s borderline nuts. I really believe that. I think a lot of writers have it. You need it. Also, I should say that my agent, Andrew at the time, was huge because he was like, “Just stay calm. We’re going to sell this. We’re going to find you a new home for it.” Every single publisher in New York said no. Then Dan said maybe.

Zibby: Wow, that’s impressive. This is not for the faint of heart, this life, this author life.

Casey: Right. It also feels increasingly marginalized and anachronistic because everything’s happening at the speed of Twitter. It’s like, what are you doing shut up for years in a room with a computer writing one book? What could seem more preposterous when we live at light-warp speed?

Zibby: And yet, it happens all the time. There’s still such a voracious appetite for it.

Casey: Oh, my god, books are everything. Books give life meaning.

Zibby: Having delved deep into these other topics, do you have a new topic that you think you’re going to write about next?

Casey: For some reason, I’m craving a story that takes place in Los Angeles. I’m kind of on the lookout for one. I love writing these hybrid personal and narrative nonfiction and putting it together. That’s my favorite way of writing these days. I’m looking for something on the West Coast. I don’t even know why yet.

Zibby: Okay. In all my time in LA, I will be searching for stories for you. I’ll be like, “Casey, how about this?”

Casey: Just email me, Zibby.

Zibby: I will. I really will. In the book you write that, “Attention can be heartbreaking.” You pay attention, and you notice an elderly gentleman one day in a restaurant. He’s looking really lonely. You ask, does he always come in by himself? They say, pretty much, yes. You said, “That I paid attention to him does not change his life or better it in any way, but I think that it does change mine.” Tell me a little about that.

Casey: That was a moment, I was having dinner with my husband. There was this man in the corner just staring out at this crowded restaurant utterly alone. By the way, I eat dinner alone all the time, but there was this atmosphere to him that was very specific. After he left, I said to the waitress, “Is he always here alone?” She said, “Yes, he’s always here alone.” It’s a very painful thing to see someone’s sadness so palpably. There’s so much sadness and so many problems around us, from the personal to political to the global. When I think about the singed koalas in Australia, I could sob. I think the instinct is to try and suppress those thoughts and that consciousness, but we have to stay tuned into what’s going on.

Zibby: You had some line that if you paid attention to everything, life would be hell.

Casey: Your brain won’t let you. It literally won’t let you. I think we have to try and stay awake as much as we can.

Zibby: There also was this moment where I was wondering how you had the emotional fortitude or what lessons you could share when your book deal for the last book — you had an editor. You’d worked on it for years. Your editor leaves the publishing house. You get a new editor, takes you out to lunch or something in a snowstorm and says, “Actually, I don’t think your book needs to exist. It doesn’t even need to exist,” and then leaves you sitting there stunned, shocked. My heart just broke for you in that moment. Then I couldn’t believe, a paragraph or two later you’re like, “Then I sent it out to a bunch of new publishers.” I had to go back to the — I was like, did she really? Really? Good for her.

Casey: Well, my agent.

Zibby: Okay, but still.

Casey: It was rough. I was thirty. I’d been on Adderall for ten years, so the manuscript was a mess because it was the product of very muddled thinking. It was cancelled by this young editor I was reassigned to. It was one of the worst moments of my life that became one of the luckiest things that ever happened to me because she and I were never going to have a creative collaboration. By incredible good luck, it led me to Dan Frank who was the editor of that last book and is the current editor of this one. That has been one of the most precious, charmed relationships of my entire life, and it was the prompt for getting me off Adderall because I realized I have made such a mess of everything I actually care about. I can’t write on amphetamines. I cannot feel or see clearly. Getting my first book cancelled was the rock-bottom moment. Within months, I was off Adderall.

Zibby: It could’ve gone a very different way.

Casey: Yeah, it could have. It was by the skin of my teeth that Dan took me on. I had to re-report and rewrite that entire — I don’t think a single sentence remained the same. It was another whole year of writing and reporting. It was so worth it just to have a chance to be with him.

Zibby: In conclusion, after all of this research and your whole book and everything, how can we pay more attention? How can we live more in the moment? This is something on my mind all the time, like most people. What do you think? Has it helped you to learn all of this? Has it changed your behavior?

Casey: I think it has. For me personally, things like silent meditation retreats and digital detoxes are just too radical. I’ve given up hope that I personally could be helped by them. The power of studying and thinking about how important attention is in terms of having a good life, just to have that thought in your mind when you’re in the middle of an Instagram stupor, when you’re on Twitter in despair at the discourse you’re seeing, just try and stay conscious of the fact that right now your attention has been hijacked. Literally, technologists of Silicon Valley and their algorithms have taken your attention from you. You need to stay awake and push back. For me, that’s the only thing that’s helped me so far. I’m still looking for other solutions, like everyone.

Zibby: Do you have any advice to aspiring authors?

Casey: Yes, I actually do. To young writers right now, I would say avoid and resist groupthink. I think there’s so much fear about offending the group that you want to be identified with online. I don’t think that great writing really springs from placating the group you wish to belong to. I think it springs from speaking from your heart even if you’re going to offend or alienate people that you admire.

Zibby: I love that. You have to stay true to yourself. That’s right.

Casey: Always.

Zibby: Thank you so much, Casey. Thanks for coming on. Thanks for this great book. Thanks for bringing attention to the forefront of my mind and helping me think about it in a whole new way.

Casey: You’re so welcome, Zibby.

Zibby: Thanks.