If you haven’t yet encountered the work of Maria Konnikova, let me introduce you right away: here’s the About page on her website; here’s some information about her forthcoming (in January 2013) book from Viking, Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes; here’s a link to her personal blog; here’s a link to her blog for Scientific American, Literally Psyched (“Conceived in literature, tested in psychology”); and here’s a link to “The Power of Concentration,” an opinion piece she recently did for the New York Times’ Sunday Review. And yes, I do realize you could have gotten to most of those just from her website, but I wanted you to see a sampling of her projects, to point out her bona fides and my interest in her work.
Ms. Konnikova’s work fascinates me because she writes elegantly about literary and psychological issues I care about (besides, her November 12, 2012 Literally Psyched entry, “In praise of paper,” made me a fan for life—how good it is to hear a Columbia Ph.D. candidate observe about the massive Hurricane Sandy power outages: “And it was also about then that it struck me how lucky it was that I had never converted away from the oh-so-very-analog world of simple paper”). She is not a Luddite—as she notes later in that same post,
“I would never wish for a return to earlier, pre-Internet, pre-electricity, even, days. Not for a second. I don’t romanticize the past or take for granted the incredible advances and conveniences of the present. And I couldn’t have been more overjoyed when power at last returned on Saturday afternoon; it felt like the most generous gift anyone had ever given me. But that single disconnected week did make me pause to realize just how dependent we’ve become on things that can go away in one second of a not-so-freak hurricane—and it made me incredibly grateful for my backwards-looking clinging to those very old-school habits of paper reliance.”
She speaks of “the friendly world of the past,” and that resonates strongly with me, however much I depend upon my computer, my Internet connection, and my online databases for research and information. Sandy reminded me, too, that total dependence on electrically-powered devices can become a disaster within a short space of time, given the right circumstances and an act-of-God-hurricane. As much as I’m looking forward to having access to much more online (go DPLA!), I continue to be thankful that I can read printed books as an escape from the wired world in which I work.
That leads right into the heart of Ms. Konnikova’s new book, about thinking like Sherlock Holmes. She characterizes Holmes as “…the quintessential unitasker in a multitasking world.” She makes the connection between this unitasking concentration and Holmes’ brilliance by pointing out the cognitive significance of such thought:
“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.”
I’ve become increasingly intrigued by mindfulness and its effects on our brains and our quality of life, and I now find myself urging my friends and loved ones to reduce their multitasking and focus on what they’re doing as they’re doing it. This is partly because I see so many insane Boston-area drivers speeding along Route 128 weaving in and out of traffic while on cell phones, but it’s also because I’ve seen the effects that over-multi-tasking has on people, myself included. Case in point: in one particularly frenzied period earlier this year, within a week I lost my cell phone, my calendar planner, and four pieces of jewelry. Never found any of them. I’m pretty sure I threw them out at various points during the day while I WAS MULTI-TASKING, aka doing too many things at once and not doing any of them well. During that same period I realized I wasn’t being particularly productive, I was just very focused on all that I had to do and worrying about it. I finally got to the point that I stopped doing anything, decided what the most important thing was that I needed to do, and did it. Having finished a single task, I worked on the next important thing. And so on, until I dug myself out of the anxiety/productivity hole I’d gotten myself into.
It doesn’t seem to me that multi-tasking is a characteristic attributable to any particular generation—it seems to have become the norm across the generations, although I do hear from a number of same-gen friends that they increasingly find themselves standing in their kitchens at the end of the day, wondering, “what the heck did I come out here for?” The iffy news is that I’m also hearing this from friends not of my generation, of Gens X and Y.
So my plan for the coming year is: be mindful, festina lente, and read more printed books, including Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes as soon as I can get my hands on it.