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by Paula LaRocque on November 21st, 2010

I recently attended a fascinating talk given by Dr. Sandi Chapman, founder and chief director of the Center for BrainHealth at UT Dallas.  She spoke in part about brain “conditioning”—exercising and strengthening the brain.  Dr. Chapman said that we neglect our brains, in part because our whole idea of fitness stops at the neck.

The talk was interesting throughout, but the most important take-home message for me was the negative effects of multitasking.  Contrary to what we might suppose, doing several things at the same time does not present a healthy challenge to the brain, nor does it exercise and strengthen it.  We might pride ourselves on our ability to simultaneously set a meeting agenda, field a phone call, and send an e-mail.  And our young might train themselves to do homework and text their friends to the background clamor of loud and distracting music.  But the fact is that because none of those activities gets our full attention, each is necessarily superficial, fragmenting our focus. In terms of exercise, it’s like lifting weights without the weight.

If multitasking doesn’t exercise and strengthen the brain, what does?  Deep, fully focused concentration on one subject or activity.

During the Q&A portion of the presentation, a man in the audience asked: Should I do crossword puzzles? And the ensuing dialogue went like this:

Dr. Chapman:  If you do lots of crossword puzzles, you’ll get better and better at working crossword puzzles. But it won’t be of generalized benefit to your brain.

Man:  What should I do if I want to keep my brain pliable and healthy into old age?

Dr. Chapman: You should practice your passion.

Man: How do I know what my passion is?

Dr. Chapman [after the laughter subsided]:  Anything you do that’s so engrossing that you lose track of time—that’s a passion.  It could be any number of creative or intellectual pursuits.

She went on to elaborate—suggesting that when we concentrate fully and our brains are chugging away to the point that we lose track of time and surroundings, that’s deep focus.  And that’s that kind of exercise that strengthens and conditions the brain.

It strikes me as a paradox.  When we focus deeply, we lose time, but because of the benefit of the effort, we aren’t wasting time.  On the other hand, when we try to save time by multitasking, that’s when we in fact waste time.

This emphasis on practicing one’s passion reminds me of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers.  That book posits in part that even geniuses, even seeming child prodigies and overnight successes, must intensively practice their passion before achieving mastery.  Gladwell writes that along with talent and ambition, we must also have the opportunity to cultivate our special skill before we become masters, and that this is so whether we are Mozart, the Beatles, or Bill Gates.  Gladwell and others have even calculated about how long we must practice to achieve mastery: ten thousand hours.  If my math is right, that’s about three hours a day for ten years—with only an occasional day off.

We’d better get to work.

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