A modern brain at work
As I am writing in this moment, I focus on the cognitive science of mindfulness, but I am, multitasking my way through the article in an attempt to increase productivity.
I multitask and think I am proficient, making the most of each moment. I’m sitting in my black leather chair in my home office, watching “Everybody Loves Raymond” on my iPad, hands typing at the Macbook Pro, ears listening to a Ted Talk playing on earbuds from my iPhone. Kids are readying for school in the hall outside my office, and mom is raising her voice, yelling.
Silent moments without noise and distraction are rare, and with four cute children, a lovely wife, teaching, reading, and writing, I foresee less mindfulness in my future. My mind constantly fragments between many tasks and intrusions. Mindfulness, or extended periods of calm reflection, are priceless because they focus us on the present moment. Multitasking is the exact opposite, and our brains react to each environment uniquely.
Myth of multitasking
Recent cognitive science research reinforces the human need for mindfulness throughout the day, and many scholars suggest that working on one task at a time trumps multitasking. While we are tempted to think that we are efficient worker bees, we actually accomplish far less when we manage multiple jobs simultaneously.
The scientific proof of this was reported by The New York Times in the article “The Power of Concentration” by Maria Konnikova, where she explores the science of our brain in the workplace, suggesting that drastic changes are needed. She claims that we damage our efficient, one-track minds when we consistently multitask.
To illustrate her ideas, Konnikova invokes the image of Sherlock Holmes when he receives word of a thrilling new case. He remains calm in his comfy chair, pipe smoke billowing, silently reviewing the details while Watson is eager for immediate action. The brilliant Holmes is mindful, in the present moment as he focuses intently on the case, and we see the benefits of this meditation when he solves the case with stunning mental feats.
Cognitive science 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 provide hope and confirmation. Konnikova reviews several studies performed in the past two years that reveal how the neurons in our brains function: First, neurons, neural pathways, and brains possess plasticity, or the ability to adapt to new situations, and second, mindfulness alters our brains in positive ways, making them more efficient.
The first point refutes the centuries old belief that our minds are frozen after the age of 21, unable to change, adapt, or grow. Scientists found instead that our minds are plastic throughout our lives, meaning that they continually adapt and reprogram. So, at your age, whatever that is, 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 myths. Neuroscientists offer evidence that our brains function more efficiently on single, relatively quick tasks, and the structure of neural pathways will adapt to perform better if we change our habits. Quiet moments of mindfulness reinforce these altered neural pathways, and we can delete the brain structures created by chronic multitasking.
We should not feel discouraged by the news that we are working inefficiently because neuroscience provides new hope, and our brains are not permanently damaged. We can exercise my mind to reshape it, training it to be an efficient mono-tasking machine again.