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Concentration Is the Key

These days, many people take pride in the ability to multitask, but me? I'd just
like to master mono-tasking.
I realize that everything I've done well in my life I've done in a state of intense
concentration -- a state of such focus on one task that no other information or
concern can break in. My only question has been, and remains, how to get into
that zone.
R.N. Whitehead, director of a Canadian tutoring program called Oxford
Learning Centres, speculates that concentration is an ability like any other.
People are born with a propensity for it but the skill must then be developed,
and the process begins in childhood.
Until recent decades, Whitehead says, people learned to read from books that
had relatively few pictures and were written in "natural language," which
presented readers with lots of vocabulary they didn't necessarily know. Reading
those books demanded -- but also built -- concentration.
Today, books for beginning readers tend to have lots of pictures and only a few
words, and those words are carefully selected to be reading-level appropriate so
that children rarely encounter words they must puzzle out from context. If the
material is well sequenced, children emerge into reading naturally without
palpable effort, almost without noticing: That's the theory.
The theory works. Kids do learn to read from carefully calibrated materials
such as these, but building up the power of concentration? That's a different
issue.
Many elements of modern life may actually erode concentration by involving
children in short bursts of interaction that return quick rewards. Take video
games, for example. What they have to give, you can get in five seconds --
bang! pow! hey, that felt good! -- and if you play for 10 seconds, you get the
same thing twice (and for 30 seconds, six times).
Playing a video game for hours on end (not uncommon -- been there/done that)
resembles concentration but is actually, in my opinion, the exact opposite; it is
to concentration as antimatter is to matter.
By contrast, reading or telling stories to very young children may help build
concentration by involving them in a narrative that takes shape over time and
offers a payoff only if they've stayed with the story throughout.

Concentration -- why bother?


Concentration is worth building because it is a foundational skill; it supports
almost everything else one might do. In that way it's like intelligence. In fact,
definitions of intelligence often include concentration as a component.
Anecdotes about famous achievers of history suggest that one thing they
shared was a phenomenal ability to get fully immersed in … something.
Michelangelo spent two years on his back, two feet from the ceiling, painting
the Sistine Chapel. I myself would have spent most of that time idly wondering
whether to have pizza that night or soup.
In fact, according to the stories, only the pope could break the great artist's
concentration. He kept coming in to ask, "How's it going?" Finally Michelangelo
"accidentally" dropped a hammer that landed too close for comfort, and the
pope stayed away after that.
Most of the advice aimed at students about how to concentrate amounts to
Michelangelo's hammer: eliminate distractions, they say. For example, turn off
the TV (duh), turn off the stereo (duh) and power down the iPod (you think?).
It's all true, but it's purely external advice. It addresses the place where you
concentrate, not the "you" who concentrates.
Advice about the inner you mostly boils down to health tips masquerading as
concentration tips:
• You can't concentrate when you're drowsy, so get enough sleep.
• You can't concentrate when you're groggy, so don't sleep too much.
• You can't concentrate when you're starving, so eat right.
• You can't concentrate when you're bloated, so don't overeat.
• And get some exercise, for heaven's sake! You can't concentrate if --

I'll stop there. It's worthy advice, but generic. The same tips apply to almost
anything you might want to do better. Want to ace a test? Memorize the "Iliad"?
Learn juggling tricks? Eat right, exercise well, get enough sleep. Yes, Mom.
There's got to be more. People with phenomenal powers of concentration reveal
it most dramatically when the context doesn't favor them. I'm thinking of a chef
I knew years ago when I worked in a gourmet restaurant as a waiter. The
dining room at that place was always whisper quiet, the kitchen always a
madhouse. One night, I stepped into that chaos -- the ice machine had broken,
a fight had erupted between two sous-chefs, someone was waving a knife --
and there was June, calmly stirring a sauce. Suddenly a pot of something
caught fire. Pandemonium ensued; everybody rushed to douse the flames, but
June never took her eyes off her sauce -- it wasn't her pot on fire. Later I asked
if she had noticed the fire. She had. How then could she just ignore it? "I was
making hollandaise," she said. "You have to watch it or it breaks."
That, my friends, is concentration on the hoof: It's not the ability to focus in
the absence of distraction, but the ability to focus in spite of distraction.

Attention surplus condition


Our society has put little effort into devising techniques for building
attentiveness. We get interested in concentration mostly when its absence rises
to the level of a clinical syndrome. A whole industry has developed, for
example, around the disability known as attention deficit disorder, or ADD.
I don't doubt that ADD exists, nor that it merits clinical consideration, nor that
suitable treatments may help restore people who suffer from this disability to a
normal state. I only wonder if "normal" is as good as it gets. How about moving
from normal to extraordinary?
According to psychologist Richard Davidson, "Attention can be trained, and in
a way that is not fundamentally different [from] how physical exercise changes
the body." He zeroes in specifically on meditation, that body of techniques
perfected in East Asia for achieving attentive calm. Research by Davidson and
his associates at the University of Wisconsin seems to prove that meditation
can, in fact, improve one's ability to shut out distraction.

The proof
In one experiment, people were taught certain basic meditation techniques and
then asked to meditate while hooked up to machines that scanned what their
brains were doing. In people who attained a deep, meditative state, it turned
out, the area of the brain known to be associated with attention became active
while other areas -- those associated with emotion, for example, or with
processing external stimuli -- went dormant.
Researchers then hooked brain-scanning equipment to two groups of test
subjects: seasoned meditators with thousands of hours of experience and
novices. With each group, when the meditators seemed to be fully immersed,
the researchers set off various distractions nearby -- a blaring TV, a crying
baby, a gunshot, stuff like that.
In the novices, each event triggered brain waves that spread to other parts of
their brains and did not die away for a long time. In the experienced
meditators, each event set off a brief burst of brain activity in one limited area
and then the brain went back to its former state: In short, the input was
noticed, registered and set aside.
That looks like dead-bang proof that meditation enhances a person's
underlying ability to concentrate. Of course it's also true that meditation
classically aims to detach meditators from the world and get them
concentrating essentially on nothing. I, personally, would rather concentrate on
something. I don't want to detach from the world, I want to stay in it and get
something done. I don't know of any definitive proof that the power of
concentration developed by meditation can be applied, for example, to flying a
plane through a thunderstorm.
But the broader point seems indisputable: Concentration is a skill. If it isn't
used, it can atrophy; if it isn't trained, it fails to develop past a certain point.
But by the same token, with the proper training and practice, it can be
developed to a level of fearsome intensity.
Preferably, this begins in childhood (which is where parents and other elders
come in) but it's never too late. Adults with normal powers of concentration can
strengthen those powers with simple exercises such as the following:

• Count backward from 100 slowly and steadily.


• Count backward from 100 by threes.
• Simply look at an object for a set period -- say, 15 minutes.
• Building on the previous exercise, remove the object and picture it for that
same period.

And if the buzz of distracting thoughts grows intolerable, stop what you're
doing, make a list of everything on your mind at that moment, choose one
thing to focus on, and then schedule a time to deal with all the rest. Giving
your anxieties appointments, I find, tends to make them stop petitioning for
attention now.
In short, I stand with those Zen masters who, when asked how they achieved
enlightenment, answered, "When I walk, I just walk. When I eat, I just eat."