The Power of Concentration

Maria Konnikova, writes in the New York Times on what we can learn from Sherlock Holmes, the world’s greatest fictional detective and the ultimate unitasker.

More often than not, when a new case is presented, Holmes does nothing more than sit back in his leather chair, close his eyes and put together his long-fingered hands in an attitude that begs silence. He may be the most inactive active detective out there. His approach to thought captures the very thing that cognitive psychologists mean when they say mindfulness.

And

These effects make sense: the core of mindfulness is the ability to pay attention. That’s exactly what Holmes does when he taps together the tips of his fingers, or exhales a fine cloud of smoke. He is centering his attention on a single element. And somehow, despite the seeming pause in activity, he emerges, time and time again, far ahead of his energetic colleagues. In the time it takes old detective Mac to traipse around all those country towns in search of a missing bicyclist in “The Valley of Fear,” Holmes solves the entire crime without leaving the room where the murder occurred. That’s the thing about mindfulness. It seems to slow you down, but it actually gives you the resources you need to speed up your thinking.

The difference between a Holmes and a Watson is, essentially, one of practice. Attention is finite, it’s true — but it is also trainable. Through modifying our practices of thought toward a more Holmes-like concentration, we can build up neural real estate that is better able to deal with the variegated demands of the endlessly multitasking, infinitely connected modern world. And even if we’ve never attempted mindfulness in the past, we might be surprised at how quickly the benefits become noticeable.

I’m reminded of Blaise Pascal’s thought: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”