The Value of Concentration

Excerpt from "The Power of Concentration," by Maria Konnikova, The New York Times, Dec. 15, 2012:

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 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...

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 dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain involved in attention monitoring and working memory, and the right insula, an area that is associated with how well we can monitor our own feelings and thoughts and that is considered a key waypoint between our two major attention networks, the default and the executive.

Not only could this increased connectivity make us better able to switch between tasks and monitor our own attention, 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 — with regular meditators exhibiting increased resting-state functional connectivity and increased connectivity generally. After a dose of mindfulness, the default network has greater consistent access to information about our internal states and an enhanced ability to monitor the surrounding environment.

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 centering 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.  

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