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Sunday, April 12, 2015

Paying Attention: Vital and Hard to do

A while back I wrote about how things that matter take time, take energy. It goes without saying, or does it, that things that matter demand attention as well. And paying attention is more difficult than we realize, more complicated than expected and more connected to a meaningful life then we ever could have imagined.

The reality is that we don't really multi-task, we do one thing at a time and we switch from one thing to another. Each switch requires real physical energy in the brain and that is tiring and draining. As with any activity, the more energy you have the more you can do and unfortunately energy levels often correlate with age. So maybe in your thirties you could juggle more things than you can in your fifties. The key here, as with many things, is to calm down and keep perspective. Luckily perspective is out there.

Daniel Levitin, neuroscientist and musician at McGill University, knows a lot about how the mind works and first hit the big time as an 'Academic Superstar' with his popular science books and articles on the brain and music. His latest work on making sense of thinking in a world of information overload is smart, clear and a good overview of how our lives have changed with the explosion of information and stimuli that we now all experience daily.

But Levitin is interested in doing more than just explain. Ever since the book was published he's been on the road and on the net trying to explain to people how to take control of their attention. He likes to talk about experiments done 50 years ago and more recently about how many things we can 'keep in mind at once' and the reality is maybe 4, maybe 5. He uses a fantastic example. You are coming through the door, with mail, groceries, a coat to hang up and the keys in your hand. That's already five things and your phone rings. Something will go astray and if you are like me you will be cursing yourself about forgetting something as important as where you put your keys. You are not 'having a senior moment;' you are coping with reality.

I find the guy truly stimulating and comforting. His explanation of how the brain works is very accessible. His understanding of how to parse out the process of decision-making is simple to follow. His approach and perspective is something we could all use at every moment of our day.

He is worth checking out: as a great talk, as a good interview, as is a nice top ten tips. But check out his book as well. If we are going to be awash in information, it is good to make sure some of it is totally useful. P

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