"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Hippy-Dippy Ideas Are Back Again

In an article in the New York Times (12.16.12) Maria Konnikova writes about ‘mindfulness’ – a movement to adapt ancient theories of meditation to modern life.  We have lost the Sherlock Holmes idea of pure thought and reason.  Our minds wander too much and too far; and multi-tasking erodes whatever singularity of thought we might muster.

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 uni-tasker 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 long-fingered 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.

Just as Buddhist monks are able to meditate their way to a state of non-thought after a long process of learning – through meditation – to calm thought, reduce it little by little until it disappears altogether; today’s professionals can do the same thing.  Not eliminate cognitive thought by any means.  This is America after all, and for most of us it is simply wrong to have a spineless, thoughtless, flaccid, stale state of mind as a goal.  Nevertheless, since it is America, if there is a way to use this unproductive enterprise for something productive, let’s get down to business and make money. This is what the psychologist Ellen Langer demonstrated in the 1970s – “mindful thought could lead to improvements on measures of cognitive function and even vital functions in older adults” Recently (2011) researchers at the University of Wisconsin went even further:

Daily meditation-like thought could shift frontal brain activity toward a pattern that is associated with what cognitive scientists call positive, approach-oriented emotional states — states that make us more likely to engage the world rather than to withdraw from it.

So, thousands of ambitious professionals, already tinged with New Age optimism about behavioral change and ‘improvement’, are signing up for these mindfulness courses. More money down the drain, I feel, because concentrating has never been a mystery. Intelligent people have always been cast in the Holmes mold. Whether they are figuring out a math problem, deciphering a complex passage of Shakespeare or ancient Aramaic fragments; whether they are composing a sheet of music, a short story, or a business proposal, they have quickly learned that tunnel-vision is easy.  If arriving at the solution of a complex problem or argument is a matter of marginalizing the non-essential and extraneous, then performing the same segmentation and orientation in our own minds is only logical.  What is the big deal?

Konnikova herself says:

The difference between a Holmes [pure thinker] and a Watson [distracted thinker] is, essentially, one of practice. Attention is finite, it’s true — but it is also trainable. Through modifying our practices of thought toward a more Holmes-like concentration, we can build up neural real estate that is better able to deal with the variegated demands of the endlessly multitasking, infinitely connected modern world. And even if we’ve never attempted mindfulness in the past, we might be surprised at how quickly the benefits become noticeable.

In other words although the ability to concentrate is innate or inherent in particularly intelligent people, training can enhance it.  So why bother with hippy-dippy meditation-like ‘mindfulness’?

I once had a dope of a Division Chief at the World Bank who was amazed at how fast I could turn out white papers, proposals, analyses, and reports.  “You write well”, he said as though this ability to quickly read, segment, analyze, synthesize, organize, and conclude was a matter of nimble fingers on the keyboard; or something to do with my ‘way with language’.  He had no idea what mental discipline (concentration) it took to produce what I did.

There were three variables responsible for my ability – native intelligence, an excellent education which put the highest premium on focused analysis, exegesis, and conclusion; and belief that overtime at the office was very poorly paid.  In other words, the faster I did the work, the sooner I would be out playing tennis.  It never took practice to become adept at this.  I was ready when I left graduate school. Perhaps the remedial ‘mindfulness’ education that Konnikova is suggesting is good for those who didn’t get Uncle Albert’s smart genes or who went to a second-rate university; but for the rest of us, it is definitely not worth the money.

Konnikova overstates the ‘noise’ of multi-tasking.  Somehow this practice degrades or diminishes our ability to concentrate, she says, and diverts us from the more important job of producing results of quality.  Not true at all.  The two activities are separate.  In my last job I was responsible for four different international projects, all requiring a great deal of attention because they were in different countries which spoke different languages, and were managed by very different personalities.  My job as Director of each project was to solve problems of budget, personnel, technical input, timing and programming, and politics for each one.  Every day my mind jumped from one project to another and from one sub-problem to another.  I multi-tasked like a son-of-a-bitch.  At the same time, my powers of concentration were at their height.  I had to maintain a supremely disciplined (concentrated) mind to be able to keep track of which project was which and which particular problem needed attention; let alone offer reasonable solutions. In other words my multi-tasking did not get in the way of my concentration.  It made multi-tasking possible.

Konnikova ends with a hippy-dippy conclusion:

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 uni-task, 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.

Hmmm…I am retired now and happily engaged in a new enterprise – writing and teaching theatre.  I am happy to report that when I am reading Hamlet, Absalom, Absalom, or The Brothers Karamazov; or when I am preparing for my classes or writing my blog, I jump out of my chair every time my wife knocks on my door, just as I did at work when a colleague tapped on the glass.  I am startled because my concentration is so deep that everything else except what is on the printed page does not exist.

I am happy that my children have inherited this ability.  My son’s powers of concentration are far greater than mine.  He has negotiated higher level mathematics, spent entire nights painting one pine tree, needle-by-needle in the Eastern Zen tradition, and read complex philosophical treatises in a day.  My daughter manages more tasks at once than I could ever conceive of.

So, '”Back to Basics”, I say.  Teach intellectual discipline from the earliest possible age.  Encourage it, reward it, strengthen it. Criticize all slackers, force them back into the pure intellectual groove of concentration.  Then they will never need mindfulness training.

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