Combining two of my favorites, mindfulness meditation and mystery fiction. Nice! (By the way, the Default Mode Networks in the brain mentioned below, are also optimized by acupuncture as demonstrated by Napadow.)
“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.”
December 15, 2012, The Power of Concentration, By MARIA KONNIKOVA
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.
Though the concept originates in ancient Buddhist, Hindu and Chinese traditions, when it comes to experimental psychology, mindfulness is less about spirituality and more about concentration: the ability to quiet your mind, focus your attention on the present, and dismiss any distractions that come your way. The formulation dates from the work of the psychologist Ellen Langer, who demonstrated in the 1970s that mindful thought could lead to improvements on measures of cognitive function and even vital functions in older adults.
Now we’re learning that the benefits may reach further still, and be more attainable, than Professor Langer could have then imagined. Even in small doses, mindfulness can effect impressive changes in how we feel and think — and it does so at a basic neural level.
In 2011, researchers from the University of Wisconsin demonstrated that 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…
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. What we really do is shift our attention rapidly from task to task. Two bad things happen as a result. We don’t devote as much attention to any one thing, and we sacrifice the quality of our attention. When we are mindful, some of that attentional flightiness disappears as if of its own accord…
Similar changes have been observed in the default network (the brain’s resting-state activity). In 2012, researchers from Ohio State University demonstrated that older adults who scored higher on mindfulness scales had increased connectivity in their default networks, specifically in two of the brain’s major information processing hubs. And while we already know that this kind of increased connectivity is a very good thing, there’s more to these particular results. The precise areas that show increased connectivity with mindfulness are also known to be pathophysiological sites of Alzheimer’s disease.
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 unitask, 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.
Maria Konnikova is the author of “Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes” and a doctoral candidate in psychology at Columbia.