By: Allan J. Hamilton, MD, FACS

A few decades ago, there was a wonderful commercial hawking a margarine that had less fat but all the taste of butter. It was so good that even Mother Nature was fooled but, at the close of the commercial, we were warned: “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.” And, recently, we’ve been messing with her—bad.

Our society—our world—has become obsessed with multi-tasking. A short time ago, I watched a young woman who seemed to be the poster child for the woes of multi-tasking. She was a mother waiting to catch a plane. She was feeding her baby applesauce with a spoon in one hand, while listening to messages on her cell phone with the other. While the baby was swallowing– between gulps–she would lay down the spoon and type a few words on her laptop! Then she missed her connection because there was an announcement, which she did not catch, of a gate change. We are all falling victims of sensory and informational overload.

Now, when we watch television, there are streaming telegraphic headlines along the margins about breaking news, ads pop up about upcoming guests on Jay Leno, and screens appear within screens, while credits from the last show rip past the opening scenes of the next.

Recently, my home state of Arizona has begun pondering if it should fine individuals who are caught text messaging, while they’re behind the wheel. Is there a debate about this? We may also consider future legislation that prohibits the entry of target coordinates for intercontinental ballistic missiles or performing high voltage electrical repairs, while driving as well. The fact is that all of us, in one fashion or another, are trying to do too many things at once and it’s reached dangerous proportions.

And it doesn’t work. Mother Nature never designed our brains to focus on multiple tasks at once. For example, the fact we drive down the road and have a conversation with a passenger doesn’t actually translate into our brains doing both simultaneously. We actually carry them sequentially, alternating quickly and adroitly between the two. Actually, we are interpreting those two tasks, as well as thousands of other sensory stimuli. One’s brain downplays all of them: car noises, passing scenery, seat belt too tight, my hair looks okay, ’69 Chevy, pothole, “Your daughter actually said that to you?” It takes note of them but can only hold its attention on one at a time. What gives us the illusion of multitasking is the blazing speed with which the brain can zip from one task to another.

In fact, the point of mindful meditation is to clear our thought processes by bringing them—us—back to focus on only one idea. It can be our breathing, a mantra, counting to ten, or a prayer. The beautiful secret is they all work because one thought drives away any capacity to attend to any others.

We may have to struggle and practice to return to that point of focus, but our consciousness will grasp whatever single notion we offer it. Furthermore, when we learn to work with our brains, rather than against them, a quiet tranquility descends on us. It happens when we listen with complete attention. Or watch a movie with undivided focus. Or read, oblivious to anything but the words offered on the page. There’s a simple, uncomplicated beauty from emptying rather filling the mind. It comes from recognizing our true, inner nature—and it can be a productive and satisfying exercise to abide by it.

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Tags: brains, focus, multi-tasking, thinking style

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