The Unscattered Mind
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Burnt Norton TS Eliot
The pace of life is accelerating. Indeed, there seems to be an insatiable desire to continually speed up the rate of change. Pop singers and other celebrities are famous for a year or two and then vanish into oblivion, as the public’s appetite for novelty for its own sake grows. As soon as a gadget appears it is ‘old news’, and speculation begins on the next version. This hunger for the new has a slight air of desperation about it – perhaps it is an attempt to compensate for the ongoing destruction of economic, religious and political certainties. Whatever its source, this hunger contributes to the scattering of attention; another source is the proliferation of channels of communication – email, instant messaging, SMS etc. etc. – with the consequent opportunity to chat endlessly about all the new things under the sun. This scattering of attention may seem relatively harmless, but it conceals a subtle danger: it can undermine humanity’s capacity to focus, and to make wise decision, on the many difficulties that face us as we move into a new age.
Hence there is growing concern that human consciousness is being extended in too many directions at once, leading to chronic distractedness. This scattering of attention takes place not only in leisure time, but also during work. It is becoming more widely accepted that the performance of complex mental tasks, such as computer programming, is severely impacted by interruptions. Multi-tasking is beginning to seem like a myth, or at least overhyped. Research indicates that when people try to perform two or more related tasks, either at the same time, or alternating rapidly between them, errors increase, and it takes far longer to get the jobs done than if they were done sequentially.Even young people, who have grown up with computers and mobile phones, aren’t nearly as good at multi-tasking as they think they are. An article in TIME magazine, reflecting on the experience of educators with the changing skills of young people, suggests that, while their skills at accessing information, particularly in visual form, have increased, there is also evidence that their tolerance for ambiguity and complexity is decreasing. In Wired magazine, the author Nicholas Carr cites evidence from studies which suggest that regular use of the Internet ‘re-wires’ the brain surprisingly quickly. Carr notes that in a Sciencearticle published in early 2009, prominent developmental psychologist Patricia Greenfield reviewed more than 40 studies of the effects of various types of media on intelligence and learning ability. She concluded that “every medium develops some cognitive skills at the expense of others.” Our growing use of the Net and other screen-based technologies, she wrote, has led to the “widespread and sophisticated development of visual-spatial skills.” But those gains go hand in hand with a weakening of our capacity for the kind of “deep processing” that underpins “mindful knowledge acquisition, inductive analysis, critical thinking, imagination, and reflection.”
So if the world is not to become like a fairground carousel running out of control, flinging attention out to the periphery, away from the most important issues of human life, we need to learn (or re-learn) the skills of centring our attention on these perennial issues of deep meaning that lie at the heart of civilisation. In the past, established orthodoxies in politics, religion and culture helped to anchor and direct this process, but as these orthodoxies erode, humanity is faced with the difficult task of creating new ways of expressing such central Ideas as Goodness, Truth, Justice, and Beauty. The old ceremonies and rituals which gave collective meaning to life must be forged anew in the fires of the enlightened, compassionate mind, a mind that is not “filled with fancies”, but is fixed unalterably on unveiling the Sun of Meaning. This means that we must give time and priority to meditation, in all its many forms. Stilling the mind, or rather emptying it of fancies, is only the first step in meditation, although it is sometimes mistaken for its sole purpose. If the mind is to live up to its true potential as an intermediary between Divinity and humanity, it must be actively used in contacting Divine Ideas, and then in creating forms of thought through which these Ideas can be expressed. This is the process through which great works of genius in every field – science, education, politics, the arts, religion etc. – have always emerged. Finding ways to nurture this process in every field, and to protect our minds from the pull of distractions, is a key need for the world.