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A minding matter
Sherlock Holmes proved it true years ago. Now, science is showing how mindfulness can not only help you concentrate better but multitask with greater efficiency.
Meditation and mindfulness: the words conjure images of yoga retreats and Buddhist monks. But perhaps they should evoke a very different picture: a man in a deerstalker, puffing away at a curved pipe, Mr Sherlock Holmes himself. The world's greatest fictional detective is someone who knows the value of concentration, of "throwing his brain out of action, " as Dr Watson puts it. He is the quintessential unitasker in a multitasking world.
More often than not, when a new case is presented, Holmes does nothing more than sit back in his leather chair, close his eyes and put together his longfingered hands in an attitude that begs silence. He may be the most inactive active detective out there. His approach to thought captures the very thing that cognitive psychologists mean when they say mindfulness.
Though the concept originates in ancient Buddhist, Hindu and Chinese traditions, when it comes to experimental psychology, mindfulness is less about spirituality and more about concentration : the ability to quiet your mind, focus your attention on the present, and dismiss any distractions that come your way. The formulation dates from the work of the psychologist Ellen Langer, who demonstrated in the 1970s that mindful thought could lead to improvements on measures of cognitive function and even vital functions in older adults. Now we're learning that the benefits may reach further still.
In 2011, researchers from the University of Wisconsin demonstrated that daily meditation-like thought could shift frontal brain activity toward a pattern that is associated with what cognitive scientists call positive, approachoriented emotional states - states that make us more likely to engage the world rather than to withdraw from it. As little as five minutes a day of intense Holmes-like inactivity, and a happier outlook is yours for the taking.
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. What we really do is shift our attention rapidly from task to task. Two bad things happen as a result. When we are mindful, some of that attentional flightiness disappears as if of its own accord.
In 2012, researchers led by a team from the University of Washington examined the effects of meditation training on multitasking. They asked a group of professionals to engage in the type of simultaneous planning they did habitually. Each participant was asked to complete several typical tasks: schedule meetings for multiple attendees, locate free conference rooms, write a memo that proposed a creative agenda item and the like.
After the multitasking participants were divided into three groups: one was assigned to an eight-week meditation course (two hours of instruction, weekly ); another group didn't take the course at first, but took it later;and the last group took an eight-week course in body relaxation. Everyone was put through a second round of frenzy.
The only participants to show improvement were those who had received the mindfulness training. Not only did they report fewer negative emotions at the end of the assignment, but their ability to concentrate improved significantly. They could stay on task longer and they switched between tasks less frequently. While the overall time they devoted to the assignment didn't differ much from that of other groups, they spent it more efficiently.
The benefits of mindfulness training aren't just behavioural;they're physical. In recent years, mindfulness has been shown to improve connectivity inside our brain's attentional networks, as well as between attentional and medial frontal regions - changes that save us from distraction. Mindfulness, in other words, helps our attention networks communicate better and with fewer interruptions than they otherwise would.
In a 2012 study at Emory University, increased meditation practice was associated with enhanced connectivity between the part of the brain involved in attention monitoring and working memory, and the area associated with how well we can monitor our feelings and thoughts. Not only could this increased connectivity make us better able to switch between tasks, but it is indicative of more effective overall management of our finite attentional resources.
Mindfulness training has even been shown to affect the brain's default network - the network of connections that remains active when we are in a so-called resting state. These effects make sense: the core of mindfulness is the ability to pay attention. That's exactly what Holmes does when he taps together the tips of his fingers, or exhales a fine cloud of smoke. He is centring his attention on a single element. And somehow, despite the seeming pause in activity, he emerges, time and time again, far ahead of his energetic colleagues. In the time it takes old detective Mac to traipse around all those country towns in search of a missing bicyclist in The Valley of Fear, Holmes solves the entire crime without leaving the room where the murder occurred. That's the thing about mindfulness. It seems to slow you down, but it actually gives you the resources you need to speed up your thinking.
Attention is finite, it's true - but it is also trainable. And even if we've never attempted mindfulness in the past, we might be surprised at how quickly the benefits become noticeable.
New evidence suggests that not only can we learn into old age, but the structure of our brains can continue to change and develop. In 2006, a team of psychologists demonstrated that the brains of older adults became more efficient at coordinating multiple tasks, and the benefit transferred to untrained activities, suggesting that it was symptomatic of general improvement.
Similar changes have been observed in the default network (the brain's resting-state activity). In 2012, researchers from Ohio State University demonstrated that older adults who scored higher on mindfulness scales had increased connectivity in their default networks. The precise areas that show increased connectivity with mindfulness are also known to be pathophysiological sites of Alzheimer's disease.
The implications are tantalizing. Mindfulness may have a prophylactic effect. It can strengthen the areas that are most susceptible to cognitive decline. When we learn to unitask, to think more in line with Holmes's detached approach, we may be doing more than increasing our observational prowess. We may be investing in a sounder mental future - no matter how old we are.
Maria Konnikova is an author and a doctoral candidate in psychology at Columbia.
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