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Benefits of Distraction?

Tuesday, May 26, 2009 by Marianne Elliott

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By far the most thought provoking article I read in the past week was a piece on the Benefits of Distraction by Sam Anderson in New York magazine.

Talking about a subject that seems to consume almost paradoxical amounts of our collective attention, i.e. our increasing inability to pay attention, Anderson quotes Herbert A. Simon who back in 1971 wrote what now seems a prophetic description of this modern malaise:

What information consumes is rather obvious: It
consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information
creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention
efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might
consume it.

Which reminds me of at least three different conversations I've had in the past week, most of which involve me simultaneously defending my new-found love of Twitter and extolling the virtues of Freedom, a software that locks me out of the internet for hours at a time so that I can get on with my writing.

Not surprisingly, Anderson's research showed that meditation has been so far found to be the most effective antidote to this attention-deficiency. As I discovered when I was studying psychology last year, Anderson reports that:

Neuroscientists have become obsessed, in recent years, with Buddhists,
whose attentional discipline can apparently confer all kinds of
benefits even on non-Buddhists.

I was especially interested in this finding about the practice of 'maitri' or 'loving-kindness' meditation:

The brains of Buddhist monks asked to meditate on
“unconditional loving-kindness and compassion” show instant and
remarkable changes: Their left prefrontal cortices (responsible for
positive emotions) go into overdrive, they produce gamma waves 30 times
more powerful than novice meditators, and their wave activity is
coordinated in a way often seen in patients under anesthesia.

All of which ties in very nicely to my plans for this week. With some trepidation, I am about to embark on the 'reading deprivation' exercise that is part of the Artist's Way process. For one week I won't be checking my personal emails, surfing the internet, reading blogs, following Twitter, checking Facebook, reading the newspaper (thank goodness for interns who can read it on my behalf) or even reading any books. My train journeys will be devoted to either writing, watching the world go by or, my favorite activity of all, eavesdropping on conversations to steal great ideas for dialogue!

At the same time, this week I'm starting one-on-one meditation instruction with a wonderful Buddhist teacher. I met him last weekend when I did a one-day yoga and meditation retreat and when he led us in the maitri/ loving-kindness meditation I just knew that I needed more of that particular practice. So that's what I'm going to do, with his instruction and guidance, I'm going to practice the loving-kindness meditation every day for a month.

What I found fascinating about Anderson's article, though, was his proposition that all this distraction we encounter through the myriad media sources that stream into our desktop all day long might not be an entirely bad thing.

Kids growing up now might have an associative genius we don’t — a sense
of the way ten projects all dovetail into something totally new. They
might be able to engage in seeming contradictions: mindful web-surfing,
mindful Twittering. Maybe, in flights of irresponsible responsibility,
they’ll even manage to attain the paradoxical, Zenlike state of focused
distraction.

Mindful Twittering? Now that's something I'm going to give some more thought to. In the meantime I've prepared some dishes in advance to be served later
in the week including "Change the World Friday" and "Five good things"
for Sunday. Enjoy and I'll be back in a week!

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5 Responses to "Benefits of Distraction?"

  1. Rachael King says:

    Good luck with it! I think it’s a wonderful idea and a great challenge to ‘unplug’ yourself for a week. Although I wouldn’t give up on books. Losing yourself in a good book can be one of the best things to focus attention on, I think. Could you maybe limit yourself to just one book at a time?

  2. Andi says:

    Wow, this is quite an endeavor! I just watched an Oprah special about families who took a similar challenge and it brought them really close together. I wish I had the courage to do it, because I think you would learn SO MUCH about yourself. Best wishes with this challenge. I can’t wait to hear what you discover…

  3. Damon Young says:

    If it’s good for you, it’s probably not a distraction.
    And sometimes what looks like an undistracted life – e.g. intense, narrow, stubborn concentration – can actually be a distraction from more valuable pursuits and relationships.

  4. Deducing any benefit of distraction is itself a distraction. The writer, like most of us, mistakes a distraction for something external, even an external information source. All distraction is internal, a thought process that leads us into deductive reasoning, rumination and foregone conclusions. Does a cloud distract the sun?
    For the record, there are no Zenlike states, and we can only do one thing at a time. The question is, what is it we want to do?

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