In my last article, I proposed that you could alleviate stress, improve your health and energy level, and cultivate competencies that I contend will give you a leadership advantage in the 21st century by practicing meditation. In this installment of this three-part series, I’ll discuss how meditation can significantly boost your cognitive/intellectual performance. In particular, I’ll address how it can enhance your ability to pay attention and focus (which I’ll show may be more important than you think), increase mental flexibility and ability to take numerous perspectives, and help the brain enter states associated with breakthrough perceiving and insight.
My Attention Has Been Hijacked; or Help, I Think I Have ADD![i]
I have a question for you. How long can you read this article before you switch to do something else, whether it’s to check your email or Facebook, text a friend, do a Google search, watch a YouTube video, or play Angry Birds on your phone? (Actually, do keep track of this as you read this entire article. Be honest with yourself. I’ll admit I checked email while writing this.) How often do you think you switch tasks, more generally speaking? One study found that office workers focused on a project for an average of 11 minutes and then switched to something else; another determined that employees switch activities (type an email, pick up the phone, get something out of the drawer) 20 times per hour. While we human beings are fortunate to have our sophisticated prefrontal cortex—the executive center of the brain involved in planning, pursuing goals, making decisions, focusing, judgment, emotional control, and learning from mistakes—using it is very energy intensive and it has a limited capacity. (Think tiny amount of RAM with big hard drive.) When we change activities, there are switching costs: an increased cognitive load and the release of stress hormones. Because of our processing constraints, repeatedly switching tasks can render us effectively dumber. A University of London study found that frequent emailing and texting reduced mental capability by 5 IQ points for women and 15 points for men!
Why would any rational person behave this way? Scientists such as Jaak Panksepp at Washington State University propose that our stimulation-rich Internet/device environment is highly attractive to the brain’s novelty-seeking mechanism. We get a pleasurable rush of dopamine from responding to gadget-generated stimuli, but according to Kent Berridge at the University of Michigan, there’s no satiation threshold for dopamine, so we just keep wanting more. Moreover, dopamine distorts time, so we can easily find ourselves wasting huge amounts of time online or with our devices. Apparently, they weren’t kidding when they called it a Crackberry! I bring this up because as a leader, you want to be in control of your media usage, not have your media in control of you. I’ll say more later about ways to address this.
With three times the amount of information to process in 2008 than we had in 1960 and 24/7 connectivity, we also feel inundated with too much content and too much to do. I’d bet good money that you’ve taken to multitasking to try to get a handle on this. But as pre-Internet philosopher Seneca noted, “To be everywhere is to be nowhere.” Scientists have determined that you can focus on doing only one conscious task at a time. Add another and you’ll experience a sharp decline in accuracy and performance, or you’ll take the same amount time it would have to do them separately. For example, one study found that when adding a second physical task to another physical task, performance degraded by 20%. When a mental activity was added to a physical task, performance fell by 50%! According to research undertaken by Eyal Ophir at Stanford University, it’s also harder for multitaskers to ignore irrelevant information, leading his colleague Clifford Nass to say, somewhat sardonically, “Multitaskers are lousy at multitasking.”
A Non-Prescription Rx
Because they’ve become so integral to how we do business and conduct our lives, the Internet, email, smartphones, and texting are unlikely to go away any time soon. So how do we handle the neurological consequences of having all of this information, connectivity, choice, and speed? Meditation is one of the best antidotes to the problems I’ve just discussed as it builds the parts of the brain associated with attention, particularly strengthening our conflict attention—our ability to continue to attend to something in the face competing stimuli. A number of research studies support this.