Holmes at work being mindful.
A modern brain at work
My focus right now is the neuroscience and cognitive psychology of mindfulness, but I am doing other tasks as I think through the subject.
I multitask and think myself proficient. I'm sitting in my comfy, black leather office chair, watching "Everybody Loves Raymond" on Netflix via my iPad, hand typing at the Macbook Pro, ears listening to a Ted Talk playing into earphones from my iPhone. Kids readying for school in the hall outside my office, and mom is yelling ... I mean raising her voice.
Moments when I sit in quiet thought have become quite rare, and with four cute children, a lovely wife, teaching, reading, and writing, I see less mindfulness in my future. Mindfulness refers to extended periods of calm reflection on a single item, the present moment, and multitasking is the exact opposite.
Myth of multitasking
Recent psychology and neuroscience reinforce the human need for mindfulness throughout the day, and many scholars suggest that working on one task easily trumps multitasking. We accomplish far less when managing multiple jobs, but hold tight to the belief that we are doing more.
The scientific grounds for this truth made news recently. On Sunday, The New York Times ran the opinion piece "The Power of Concentration" by Maria Konnikova, where she explores the science that calls for a change in the way we work each day. She claims that we are doing damage to our efficient, one-track minds.
Konnikova invokes the image of Sherlock Holmes when he receives a new case, remaining in his comfy chair, pipe smoke billowing, silently reviewing the details. Holmes is mindful, in the present moment, as he ponders the one task at hand, and we see the benefits of this meditation when he solves the case.
Neuroscience and Mindfulness
Konnikova suggests that we should emulate Holmes' approach, working at one task and allowing ourselves moments of mindfulness. She states that Holmes' regulates his emotional wellbeing and that:
His approach to thought captures the very thing that cognitive psychologists mean when they say mindfulness. ... But mindfulness goes beyond improving emotion regulation. An exercise in mindfulness can also help with that plague of modern existence: multitasking. Of course, we would like to believe that our attention is infinite, but it isn’t. Multitasking is a persistent myth.
Two neuroscientific truths should give us hope. Konnikova reviews several studies performed in the past two years that reveal how the neurons in our brains function:
The first point refutes the centuries old belief that our minds are frozen after the age of 21, unable to change, adapt, or grow. Neuroscientists found instead that our minds are plastic throughout our lives, meaning that they continually adapt and reprogram. So, at your age, you can still change your brain.
The second point reveals the power of quiet moments and reflection during the busy day, while illustrating the falsity of multitasking. Neuroscientists offer scientific evidence that our brains function more efficiently on single, relatively quick tasks, and the structure of neural pathways adapts if we change our habits. Quiet moments of mindfulness reinforce these altered neural pathways.
I do not feel discouraged with the news that I am working inefficiently because neuroscience provides new hope, and my brain is not permanently damaged. I can exercise my mind to reshape it, and so can you!
I include below a Ted Talk below that discusses these issues from another point of view, and I think you'll enjoy it. The video is only 2.5 minutes - see if you can focus on just one thing for that long. I failed.
Ted Talks Paolo Cardini: Forget multitasking, try monotasking
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