Minding Your Brain Training: The Cognitive Science of Mindfulness
A modern brain at work
As I write right now, I’m focusing on the cognitive science of mindfulness, but I’m multitasking throughout the article in an attempt to increase productivity.
I multitask 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, my hands typing on my Macbook Pro, listening to a 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.
Moments of silence without noise and distraction are rare, and with four cute children, a lovely wife, teaching, reading, and writing, I envision less mindfulness in my future. My mind is constantly fragmented between many tasks and intrusions. Mindfulness, or prolonged 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.
Recent cognitive science research reinforces the human need to be attentive throughout the day, and many academics suggest that working on one task at a time trumps multitasking. While we’re tempted to think of ourselves as efficient worker bees, we actually accomplish much less when handling multiple jobs simultaneously.
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-pointed minds when we constantly multitask.
To illustrate her point, Konnikova invokes the image of Sherlock Holmes when she receives news of an exciting new case. He remains calm in his comfortable chair as the smoke from his pipe rises, quietly going over the details as Watson is eager to act immediately. The brilliant Holmes is attentive, in the present moment as he focuses intently 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 past two years that reveal how neurons in our brain 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 over after the age of 21, unable to change, adapt, or grow. Instead, scientists discovered 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 quiet moments and reflection during the busy day, while illustrating the falsehood of multitasking myths. Neuroscientists offer evidence that our brains work most 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 disrupted neural pathways, and we can remove the 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 back to being an efficient single-tasking machine.