Have been reading more and more about the downsides of our multi-task happy lifestyle. Especially interesting were recent studies suggesting that multi-tasking degrades cognitive abilities, including those that require switching tasks! The latest article, a short one from the NY Times: Wandering Mind is a Sign of Unhappiness.

The thing about distraction is, you’re partly seeking novelty. Novelty is what makes the brain orient itself and become alert with attention. And our brains are wired to like it. We have become addicted to, and also mentally lazy with, novelty. Modern life means being bombarded with novelty via each new interrupting email/text/call/IM/etc. If not that, then try avoiding the endless image/sound stream of advertising. Advertisers probably know more about the psychology of ensnaring your attention than someone with a degree in the subject.

I know this is a long post. Here's a pretty looking visual distraction.

In meditation, one of the tasks we may be asked to do is to concentrate on one thing (usually breath) and to constantly be aware of the novelty within that one experience. This means, at the very least, working hard for your novelty fix. It takes serious mental concentration and attention. This is a great way to train for concentration, but frankly, it can also be a pain in the ass to do, even when the pay off is huge. But there are other, less arduous ways of training concentration.

Asana yoga is an obvious one, although the above linked NY Times article’s comment about flow reminded me not of yoga, but rather my art fundamentals classes. Sitting on the horse sketching a still life of an animal skeleton. So many little bones and contours. Your concentration is so finely honed, so as not to muddle up the number of vertebrae. Or an extended 6 hour blind contour. One pose from the model, 6 hours, no looking at your paper. You better believe you start to notice novel things, even if it’s out of sheer boredom.

But of course, what often happens is becoming completely absorbed in the task of drawing. You lose all sense of temporality. Your attentional focus is not effortless, but neither is it forced. Your mind is firing on all cylinders. You feel physically energized, even if you are sitting still. And everything just… fits.

I think everyone needs to find things like this to do everyday. When you follow your attention into a task in which you are actively engaged and do not become habituated to, you are feeding yourself with something deeper and substantial than a string of novelty induced, passively received highs. You can train yourself to probe deeply instead of filter. You might even remember this feeling and start to infuse other aspects of your life with it…