A Newly Rare Advantage

A cognitive advantage is something you can’t change. It’s either there or it isn’t. But increasingly, a different form of advantage is gaining prominence. It can’t give a boost to your intellectual capacity (because nothing can) but its lack it can wipe out much of your cognitive advantage.

What’s good about this newly rare form of advantage is that you are completely in control of it. I’m talking, of course, about the capacity to concentrate. Deep, sustained concentration on an intellectual task over several hours is very easily unlearned. But can you regain it and how to do it?

17 thoughts on “A Newly Rare Advantage

    1. But to meditate you need to concentrate. And it’s a vicious circle. Our priest says most parishioners tell him they can’t concentrate during prayer. I’m one of them, so I’m not judging.

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      1. It takes practice. If you give up every time you get distracted, of course you never make any progress on it.

        Probably helps to ditch your smart devices and limit your screentime, but coming from me that’s ego-stroking and theoretical, because I haven’t got a TV or a smartphone. They do seem to condition you to “keep clicking” and not stay focused on any one thing for more than a minute.

        IMO one thing that also contributes a lot, is that modern Americans are, by and large, never taught how to examine their own thoughts. Instead, we grow up with the crippling assumption that we are our thoughts. When actually, the content of our thoughts is mostly not ours at all. It’s some crap we saw on TV or read on the internet or came across in a book or heard from a friend or that was whispered in our ear by a malign spiritual entity. There’s very little in there that’s actually ours, and even that isn’t me. It’s just a thought. If we think our thoughts ARE us, it is very very hard to get the hang of letting them breeze past us without engaging them. St. Paisios says something like… thoughts are like airplanes buzzing around in the sky. You don’t have to build them an airport and let them land!

        But to someone conditioned to identify “self” with “my thoughts”, leaving the hornet-swarm of one’s thoughts feels like death. Particularly when the pray-er gets a glimpse of how radically impoverished is the content of her character. This is why we have prayers that we say every day. Why we are supposed to meditate on the Psalms and gospels. Why nearly everything involved in religion is something you repeat in an endless cycle, rather than just doing once. We learn it “by heart”. It becomes a stockpile in our spiritual pantry. Time and repetition determine the content of our thoughts. If you compare the time and repetition you devote to the daily news cycle, or to farmville, to the time and repetition you devote to spiritual matters… how do they stack up? Is it any wonder that for most of us, when we try to pray, the aircraft of irrelevant thoughts constantly interrupt? Not only did we build them an airport, we subsidized the airlines, gassed up the planes, and bought tickets for every flight!

        You are what you repeatedly do.

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      2. Like everything else in life, you need to practice. I do like the Rosary, it is a combination of vocal and meditative prayer and the repetitive aspect tends bring you back when your concentration lapses. You can start small and short (one decade of the Rosary or even one Hail Mary) and work your way up to 5 or more decades. I understand that Orthodox have their own version of the Rosary that is similar to the Catholic one. I found “The secret of the rosary” book by Saint Louis de Montfort quite helpful, there is some good advice on praying this prayer there, and the book is very easy to get through many sources, including a free pdf online or on Amazon.

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    1. True, I got myself confused. I have rewritten the sentence.

      Being scatterbrained undermines even a good-quality brain as I have now demonstrated in this post.

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  1. I don’t know if it works in general, but here is what I do. I suspect I have ADD tendencies, btw. If I need to concentrate, I need to block out competing intrusions and I need to be well caffeinated (coffee is a stimulant). I have LeechBlock on my browser, which I turn on (so it blocks sites like Twitter) for a certain amount of time. I out my phone in another room. And I play music through headphones. I have some playlists on Spotify that I often use (Instrumental Funk, Dark Instrumentals, etc.), but just as often what I listen to is a specific song on repeat (this has the benefit of being situation-specific; I often have music playing in my head (earworms, if you will) even when I am not working). Playing one song or classical piece on repeat has an effect of almost putting me in a trance. Excellent for when I really have to focus. And of course, I sometimes need a second (or a third) cup of coffee.

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        1. Another thing that’s really helpful is image-blockers. Images and text have completely different effects on your brain and your attention. Even if you’re visiting a site just for information, the images are gonna grab you first, and every second you analyze them, you’re not getting the info from that site. I use image and flash blockers for everything I look at on the internet, and it cuts way back on the idiocy. It doesn’t mean I can’t look at the pictures. It means there’s a little two-step process each time I want to see the pictures– just inconvenient enough to make me think about whether or not the images are necessary (for graphs and real-estate listings, they are. For most other things, they’re not). For content-less websites, this is sufficient to break the mental grip they have on me. It was interesting to realize how much visual content affects the palatability of otherwise vapid intellectual content.

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        2. I use two add-ons, one called Image on/off, which simply makes a list of sites I’ll allow images for, and gives me an on/off toggle at the top of the screen for them. If I give permission for a site once, it saves that and remembers it next time. On top of that, I use Tunable Image Block, which does exactly the same thing, but my authorizations expire after a day or two. What this means is any time I visit a new site, I have to manually switch off both these things to see the pictures. When I visit a familiar site, I only have to switch off one of them, and if I’m visiting a site I visited earlier in the day, it just loads.

          Works great for me. YMMV.

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    1. A few years of learning liturgical chant has had a similar effect for me. All my earworms are now snippets of Orthros, and they shoot down mental intrusions like a perimeter of anti-aircraft guns. Weirdly, instead of interfering on their own account like other earworms, they seem to facilitate concentration.

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  2. I’m slightly ADD, and I’ve found a good way to learn to concentrate is to set a time limit on tasks (I sometimes use the oven timer for this when working at home, and you can set an alarm on a smartphone). “I’ll focus on this one task for 5 minutes” (or even 2 or 3 minutes), then stop and do something else. Over time, I’ve learned to focus for longer periods of time, but you have to start somewhere.

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    1. Also: cancel notifications on your phone. I’ve experienced an improved quality of life since I did it. Absolutely nothing is missed by not knowing immediately of every FB comment or Twitter mention. Took me over a week to hunt down all the push notifications and disable them. Those things are insidious and keep creeping in to give an impression that you live a busy, exciting life. Nasty little twerps.

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    2. I do this, too! Saying “I will only do this for 15 min and then I can stop” does wonders (I do it for exercise, too). Generally, after 15 min I will be into a thing and not wanting to stop.
      I am also very motivated by competition, so I will have these “beat the clock” games with myself. For example, when I have a ton of grading to do, for example, I will set an alarm for, say, 10 min per exam (which is plenty of time objectively), which helps me not to waste time daydreaming or otherwise being distracted when I should be grading.

      And, as Clarissa said, turn off all notifications. Seriously. The only notification I have on is for text messages (and that would be my husband and sons; few other people text me).

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      1. I do this not by time, but by breaking tasks up into component parts, and beginning them. My biggest problem isn’t getting distracted. It’s starting. So I don’t say I must clean the kitchen before bed. That’s too big, I get overwhelmed, and I go read a book instead. I say to myself “I don’t have to wash the dishes, I just have to stack them so the sink’s clear”. And then 20 minutes later, the dishes are washed, the sink is clean, the counters are clean, the stovetop is clean, and it’s all good. Once started, it’s fine.

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