Concentration Is the Secret

But what’s the secret of concentration?


The other day I heard someone complaining that they were no good at multi-tasking.

I couldn’t relate, because I’m still trying to master the art of mono-tasking.  I’ve been working at it for years and can’t say I’ve made much progress, but there’s one thing I do know:  everything I’ve ever done well in my life, I’ve done in a state of single-minded concentration—a state of such focus on one task that no other concern can break in. My only question has been (and remains): how do I get into that zone?

I once read a study that said concentration is an ability like any other; people are born with a propensity for it, but the skill must then be developed, and that process has to begin in childhood.  In former days, ( according to this study) kids learned to read from books that had relatively few pictures and were written in “natural language”—that is,  they used lots of vocabulary words the kids didn’t know (the kind kids were apt to hear in normal, daily life). Reading those books demanded—but also built—concentration.

Today (as I can attest having written for many textbook programs)  books for beginning readers have lots of pictures and only a few words, and those words are carefully selected to be reading-level appropriate, so that children rarely encounter words they must puzzle out from context. If the material is well sequenced, children emerge into reading naturally without palpable effort, almost without noticing they’re learning anything: that’s the theory, anyway.

And the theory works. Kids do learn to read from such carefully calibrated materials. But do they build up the power of concentration while they’re learning to read? That’s a different issue.

It has long seemed to me that technology may actually be eroding the art of concentration in kids by involving them in short bursts of interaction that return quick rewards. Take video games, for example.  When you see someone hunched over a game for hours, it sure looks like concentration, but the thing is, what video games have to offer, they deliver in five seconds (bang! pow! hey, that felt good!) and if you play for ten seconds, you get the same thing twice (and if you play for 30 seconds, six times.)

Playing a video game for hours on end (and believe me, I’ve been there/done that) is to concentration as anti-matter is to matter, because it doesn’t require the player to connect a moment ago to a moment hence. It requires attentiveness only to the present moment—to sensation.

By contrast,  telling stories to young children may help build their powers of concentration by involving them in a narrative that takes shape over time and offers a payoff only if they’ve stayed with the story throughout. To really get the hit a good story offers, you have to have the beginning still in mind when you reach the end.

Concentration is worth building up, I think, because it supports just about everything else you might do. In that way, it’s like intelligence. In fact, definitions of intelligence often include concentration as a component. Anecdotes about famous geniuses of history seem to show that one thing they all shared was a phenomenal ability to get fully immersed in whatever.

Michelangelo spent two years on his back, two feet from the ceiling, painting the Sistine Chapel. I myself would have spent most of that time idly wondering whether to have pizza that night or soup, but not Michelangelo.

In fact, according to the stories, only the pope could break the great artist’s concentration. He kept coming in to ask, “How’s it going?” Finally Michelangelo “accidentally” dropped a hammer that landed too close for comfort, and the Pope stayed away after that.

Most of the advice we get about how to concentrate amounts to Michelangelo’s hammer: eliminate distractions, we’re told. For example, turn off the TV (duh); turn off the stereo (duh); unplug the iPod (ya’ think?). It’s true, it’s all true, but it’s all  purely external advice. It addresses the place where you concentrate, not the “you” who is doing the concentrating.

Advice about the inner work of concentration mostly boils down to health tips masquerading as concentration tips:

1. You can’t concentrate when you’re drowsy, so get enough sleep.
2. You can’t concentrate when you’re groggy, so don’t sleep too much.
3. You can’t concentrate when you’re starving, so eat right.
4. You can’t concentrate when you’re bloated, so don’t overeat.
5. And get some exercise, for heavens sake! You can’t concentrate if—

I’ll stop there. It’s worthy advice, but generic. The same tips apply to almost anything you might want to do better: ace a test? Memorize the Iliad? Learn juggling tricks? Play better basketball?  I’ll tell you what can help: exercise, eat right, and get enough sleep. Yes, mom. (Ordinarily, I’d offer that advice in a seminar costing $295.99 but today, I’m giving it away here for free.)

There’s got to be more to it.  I mean to say, people with phenomenal powers of concentration reveal it most dramatically when the context doesn’t favor them. I’m thinking of a chef I knew years ago when I worked in a gourmet restaurant as a waiter. The dining room at that place was always whisper-quiet, but the kitchen was always a madhouse. One night, I stepped into that chaos—the ice machine had broken, a fight had broken out between two sous-chefs, someone was waving a knife—and there was June, calmly stirring a sauce. Suddenly a pot of something caught fire. Pandemonium ensued, everybody rushed to douse the flames. But June never took her eyes off her sauce; after all, it wasn’t her pot that was in flames.  Later I asked if she had noticed the fire. She had. How then could she just ignore it? “I was making hollandaise,” she said. “You have to watch it or it breaks.”

That, my friends, is concentration on the hoof: it’s not the ability to focus in the absence of distraction, but the ability to focus in spite of distraction. (Think Joe Montana.)

Our society has put little effort into devising techniques for building attentiveness. We get interested in concentration mostly when its absence rises to the level of a clinical syndrome. A whole industry has developed around the disability known as Attention Deficit Disorder (A.D.D.) .

I don’t doubt that A.D.D. exists, nor that it merits clinical consideration, nor that suitable treatments may help restore people who suffer from this disability to a normal state. I only say: is “normal” as good as it gets? How about moving from normal to extraordinary?

According to psychologist Richard Davidson, “Attention can be trained, and in a way that is not fundamentally different (from) how physical exercise changes the body.” He zeroes in specifically on meditation, that body of techniques perfected in east Asia for achieving attentive calm. Davidson’s research seems to prove that meditation can, in fact, improve one’s ability to shut out distraction.

In one experiment, people were taught certain basic meditation techniques and then asked to meditate while hooked up to machines that scanned what their brains were doing. It turned out that in people who attained a deep, meditative state, an area of the brain associated with attention lit up while other areas—those associated with emotion, for example, or with processing external stimuli—went dormant.

Researchers then hooked brain scanning equipment to two groups of test subjects: group one were seasoned meditators with thousands of hours of experience; group two were novices. With each group, when the meditators seemed to be fully immersed, the researchers set off various distractions nearby—a blaring TV, a crying baby, a gunshot, stuff like that.

In the novices, each such event triggered brain waves that spread to other parts of their brains and did not die away for a long time. In the seasoned meditators, each event set off a brief burst of brain activity in one limited area and then the brain went back to its former state: in short, the input was noticed, registered, and set aside.

That looks like dead-bang proof that meditation enhances a person’s underlying ability to concentrate. Of course it’s also true that meditation classically aims to detach the meditator from the world and get him or her concentrating on, essentially, nothing. I, personally, would rather concentrate on something: I don’t want to detach from the world, I want to stay in it and get something done. I don’t know of any definitive proof that the power of concentration developed by meditation can be applied, for example, to flying a plane through a thunderstorm.

But the broader point seems indisputable. Concentration is a skill;  use it or lose it.  And I have faith that it’s never too late.  I’ve heard that folks with normal powers of concentration can turbocharge those powers with simple exercises such as:

1. counting backward from a hundred slowly and steadily;
2. then counting backward from a hundred by threes;
3. then simply looking at an object for a set period—say, 15 minutes;
4. then, removing the object and picturing it for that same period.

I’ve also heard that if the buzz of distracting thoughts grows intolerable,  you should stop what you’re doing, make a list of everything on your mind at that moment, choose one thing to focus on, and then schedule a time to deal with all the rest. In short, give your anxieties appointments; it tends to make them stop clamoring for attention NOW.

A Zen master was asked how he achieved enlightenment, and he answered: “When I walk, I just walk. When I eat, I just eat.” Apparently, he was onto something. I plan to try it as soon as I clear some of these emergency projects off my desk.