Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Perils Of Wandering Minds

English: Adderall
English: Adderall (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

by Peter Catapano

When we humans are asked to perform under pressure -- say Neymar is coming at you to score a tiebreaker (The ball is dancing on his shoe. How does he do that? The samba is blaring.); or maybe you have 24 hours to save the global financial system (The president's calling again, or is it your mother?) -- our internal directives, if we can stay calm enough to summon them, are usually variations on a single theme: Concentrate!

The ability to focus is important not only in crises, but in all areas of life. Daily distractions come not by the handful but by the hundreds, and the person who can tune them out at will and concentrate on the task at hand is at a clear advantage. But it is not easy.

"Of course, we would like to believe that our attention is infinite, but it isn't," Maria Konnikova, the author of "Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes," wrote in The Times. "Multitasking is a persistent myth. What we really do is shift our attention rapidly from task to task. Two bad things happen as a result. We don't devote as much attention to any one thing, and we sacrifice the quality of our attention."

To this problem, Ms. Konnikova offers a solution: she cites research that shows that the relatively simple practice of mindfulness meditation can improve our ability to concentrate. "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."

Vanquishing competitors with laser-like focus may be desirable in a competitive adult world, but the pursuit of the Holmesian ideal can be taken too far, too soon. A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control reported that in the United States one in 5 high-school-age boys and about one in 10 school-age children overall have received a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (A.D.H.D.), an increase of more than 40 percent in the last decade. These numbers lead some to believe that both parents and doctors have become too quick to force naturally energetic children (kids being kids) to adapt to adult standards of behavior. And this being the United States in the 21st century, there is a pill for it.

"About two-thirds of those with a current diagnosis receive prescriptions for stimulants like Ritalin or Adderall, which can drastically improve the lives of those with A.D.H.D. but can also lead to addiction, anxiety and occasionally psychosis," The Times reported. Misuse of these drugs is one the rise, taken not just as medication but as a focus-inducing "study aid" for students of nearly all ages. Sometimes those cases come to unhappy ends.

The author Ted Gup wrote in The Times about his son, David, who received a diagnosis of A.D.H.D. at about 5 years old. When David died from a mix of alcohol and drugs at age 21, in 2011, Mr. Gup held himself partly responsible.

"I had unknowingly colluded with a system that devalues talking therapy and rushes to medicate, inadvertently sending a message that self-medication, too, is perfectly acceptable," he wrote.

That message, Mr. Gup said, has become part of "an age in which the airwaves and media are one large drug emporium that claims to fix everything from sleep to sex."

"I fear that being human is itself fast becoming a condition."

Taken from TODAY Saturday Edition, April 27, 2013