Reduce your attention deficit

Everything has a cost and this arises from the basic fact that we are mortals. We are given a finite amount of time. Time is the limiting constraint, not money or stuff. The more stuff out there that clamors for our attention, the more acutely we wish “had we but world enough, and time.”[1] Aside from material stuff, we are also drowning in information. They call it the “attention economy.”[2] The result of a surfeit of things to attend to is the premium on attention.

So there you are: the demands on your attention grows. But the supply of your attention is fairly limited. The price of your attention is naturally going to go up. The question then is whether you can increase your supply of attention, not for the demands of the commercial classes but for your own benefit.

Here’s the good news then. Yes, you can indeed increase the amount of attention that you have. The secret, discovered long ago in the sacred land of India, is meditation. It makes sense considering that India gave yoga to the world. Yoga — yoking of the mundane with the divine — has both mental and physical aspects. Meditation is mental exercise.

Some years ago, I learnt Vipassana[3], or Insight meditation. An American friend of mine, a logger by profession, was (and still is) big time into Vispassana and I took a 10-day course in Fresno, California. It is claimed that the technique goes back 2,500 years all the way to Gautama Buddha. Only now it is being discovered by the hard sciences that Vipassana meditation can actually increase your brain resources–something that was known by the practitioners thousands of years ago. Here’s the abstract of a report from PLoS Biology, a peer-reviewed open-access journal published by the Public Library of Science titled “Mental Training Affects Distribution of Limited Brain Resources” where they studied the efffect of Vipassana meditation. The conclusion was that their “study corroborates the idea that plasticity in brain and mental function exists throughout life, and illustrates the usefulness of systematic mental training in the study of the human mind.”

Here’s the abstract: “Meditation includes the mental training of attention, which involves the selection of goal-relevant information from the array of inputs that bombard our sensory systems. One of the major limitations of the attentional system concerns the ability to process two temporally close, task-relevant stimuli. When the second of two target stimuli is presented within a half second of the first one in a rapid sequence of events, it is often not detected. This so-called “attentional-blink” deficit is thought to result from competition between stimuli for limited attentional resources. We measured the effects of intense meditation on performance and scalp-recorded brain potentials in an attentional-blink task. We found that three months of intensive meditation reduced brain-resource allocation to the first target, enabling practitioners to more often detect the second target with no compromise in their ability to detect the first target. These findings demonstrate that meditative training can improve performance on a novel task that requires the trained attentional abilities.”

I find it astonishing that meditation is not widely taught in schools in India. I suppose that it will be only after American schools have incorporated meditation in their curricula, and after a good 50 years have passed, it will dawn on Macaulay’s children[4] that it is time for Indian children to learn meditation. This intermediate step of meditation first being taught in American schools is necessary because otherwise the so-called “secular” brigade will scream bloody murder saying that Hinduism is being taught in Indian schools. Oh the horror! And Muslims will threaten to not send their children to school if meditation is taught in Indian schools, as happened when some schools tried to incorporate the yoga exercise “Surya namaskar.”

If I ever get to run a school, the first thing I would do is incorporate meditation and yoga.

Links: Newsweek report on “Meditating your way to a better brain.”

The Daily Galaxy article on “Channeling Buddha –New Research Shows Meditation Improves Attention Span.

Notes: [1] “Had we but world enough, and time” is the first line of a metaphysical poem “To his coy mistress” by Andrew Marvell (1621-1678).

[2] Alex Iskold writes, ” It is no secret that we live in an information overload age. The explosion of new types of information online is a double-edged sword. We both enjoy and drown in news, blogs, podcasts, photos, videos and cool MySpace pages. And the problem is only going to get worse, as more and more people discover the new web.”

[3] The Vipassana course I took was taught by the institution headquartered in Igatpuri, a small town close to Mumbai. Shri S.N.Goenka is the founder of this school.

[4] See Subhash Kak’s short piece explaining Macaulay’s Children.



Categories: Buddhism, Information Overload

4 replies

  1. Could it be that some people find pleasure in meditation and the spillover effect of that shows up in other aspect of their lives.
    People who exercise regularly report being more productive and being able to focus better.
    Personaly I know more folks who are productive who are in the latter category.

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  2. I went to school in chennai 2 decades ago to a pretty good institution (private in case your are wondering :). We were all taught TM (the mahesh yogi school of meditation). It did help a bit in de-stressing and increasing attention span. The problem is that it does not stop with this and most schools of meditation insist on some ideological baggage being thrown in. IMHO this pisses off most people (even kids) and they drop the meditation with the rest of the baggage.

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  3. I have personal experience of Vipassana meditation, and actually, many meditation centers are coming up in India and elsewhere. It’s being taught in Tihar prison in New Delhi to inmates. Attempts have been made to teach it in US prisons, with mixed results (in terms of openness to it, not the efficacy of technique).

    There are children’s courses (1-2 days) held in the US, and I’m assuming that similar courses happen in India too. Yes, it would indeed be amazing if this technique is taught in schools in India to children. I wish I had learned it much earlier in my life as it is indeed useful.

    Shiv, not sure what you mean by ideological baggage, but yes, there is a theory that goes with the practice, but blind acceptance of theory is not encouraged (nor is it necessary) to get the positive results of practice. At least that has been my experience with it.

    -Amit

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  4. I have personal experience of Vipassana meditation, and actually, many meditation centers are coming up in India and elsewhere in the world. It’s being taught in Tihar prison in New Delhi to inmates in an attempt to rehabilitate them. Attempts have been made to teach it in US prisons, with mixed results (in terms of openness to it, not the efficacy of technique).

    There are children’s courses (1-2 days) held in the US, and I’m assuming that similar courses happen in India too. Yes, it would indeed be amazing if this technique is taught in schools in India to children. I wish I had learned it much earlier in my life as it is indeed useful.

    Shiv, not sure what you mean by ideological baggage, but yes, there is a theory that goes with the practice, but blind acceptance of theory is not encouraged (nor is it necessary) to get the positive results of practice. At least that has been my experience with it.

    And, I agree with Atanu that once the West has done enough research on it and published papers on its benefits, in another 30-50 years, India will probably start teaching it in schools based on that. Such is the irony, but better late than never. 🙂

    -Amit

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