A modern brain at work
As I write at the moment, I am focusing on the cognitive science of mindfulness, but I am multitasking throughout the article in an attempt to increase productivity.
I multi-task and believe I am competent, making the most of every moment. I’m sitting in my black leather chair in my home office, watching “Everybody Loves Raymond” on my iPad, hands typing on the Macbook Pro, listening to Ted Talk on my iPhone headphones. The kids are getting ready for school in the hallway outside my office, and Mom is raising her voice, yelling.
Quiet moments without noise and distraction are rare, and with four beautiful children, a lovely wife, teaching, reading, and writing, I foresee less mindfulness in my future. My mind is constantly fragmented between many tasks and intrusions. Mindfulness, or extended periods of quiet reflection, are priceless because they focus us on the present moment. Multitasking is the exact opposite, and our brains react to each environment in unique ways.
Myth of multitasking
Recent cognitive science research reinforces the human need to be attentive throughout the day, with many academics suggesting that working on one task at a time beats multitasking. While we’re tempted to think we’re efficient worker bees, we actually accomplish much less when managing multiple jobs simultaneously.
Scientific proof of this was reported by The New York Times in the article “The Power of Focus” by Maria Konnikova, where she explores the science of our brains in the workplace, suggesting that drastic changes are needed. She claims that we damage our efficient and one-way minds when we constantly multitask.
To illustrate her ideas, Konnikova invokes the image of Sherlock Holmes when he receives news of an exciting new case. He sits quietly in his comfortable chair as the pipe smoke rises, silently reviewing the details while Watson is anxious to act immediately. The brilliant Holmes is attentive, in the present moment as he intensely focuses on the case, and we see the benefits of this meditation as he solves the case with amazing mental feats.
Cognitive science and mindfulness
Konnikova suggests that we should emulate Holmes’s approach, working on a task and allowing ourselves moments of mindfulness. She claims that Holmes regulates his emotional well-being and that:
His approach to thinking captures exactly what cognitive psychologists mean when they say mindfulness… But mindfulness goes beyond improving emotion regulation. A mindfulness exercise can also help with that plague of modern existence: multitasking. Of course, we would like to believe that our attention is infinite, but it is not. Multitasking is a persistent myth.
Two neuroscientific truths provide hope and confirmation. Konnikova reviews several studies conducted in the last two years that reveal how neurons in our brains work: first, neurons, neural pathways, and the brain possess plasticity, or the ability to adapt to new situations, and second, mindfulness alters our brain in a positive way. ways, making them more efficient.
The first point refutes the centuries-old belief that our minds freeze after the age of 21, unable to change, adapt, or grow. Instead, scientists found that our minds are plastic throughout our lives, meaning they continually adapt and reprogram themselves. So at your age, whatever it is, you can still change your brain.
The second point reveals the power of moments of quiet and reflection during the busy day, while also illustrating the falsity of multitasking myths. Neuroscientists offer evidence that our brains work more efficiently on single, relatively fast tasks, and the structure of neural pathways will adapt to work better if we change our habits. Quiet moments of mindfulness reinforce these altered neural pathways, and we can eliminate brain structures created by chronic multitasking.
We should not be discouraged by the news that we are working inefficiently because neuroscience offers new hope and our brains are not permanently damaged. We can exercise my mind to reshape it, training it to be an efficient single-tasking machine again.