Have you ever tried sitting still and relaxed for three minutes, and focusing on a simple thing? You can focus on a familiar name, a simple image, a small nearby object, or a sensation like breathing. If other thoughts, feelings, or sensations come up, gently ignore them and return your attention to the initial thought.
A young monk meditating in the forest (Wikimedia Common)
How long are you able to focus? How many distractions come up? Kudos if you can hold the thought with no distractions for more than a few seconds. Most of us can’t. Thoughts naturally pop up in our minds, whether we like it or not. If we can slow the stream of thoughts, we can focus better (and hence be more productive). One way to do this is by practicing mindfulness.
Are kids who play an instrument or sing smarter than everyone else? Maybe not smarter – but research shows improvements in learning and brain function with musical training. Surprisingly, just a few months makes a difference. Of course, the more years of training, the better, but researchers have measured improvements with only 1 month of musical training.
In 2004, Albert Pujols was considered one of the best baseball hitters in the world, leading the Major Leagues the previous year with a .359 batting average. Jennie Finch was considered the world’s best softball pitcher, leading the U.S. to a Gold Medal in the Olympics by striking out more than one hitter per inning and giving up 0 runs. So when Finch challenged Pujols to a matchup, it was billed as a classic showdown of men vs. women. But that was just on the surface. Deep down, this matchup also provided the perfect experiment to test the limits of a human’s reaction time – and how our brains make it possible to surpass them.
Quick – which of these lines is longer?
If you’re reading this, you’re taking too long to answer the question.
If you said the one on the right, congratulations! You’re wrong, of course, but your brain is working perfectly well. This is an example of an optical illusion, an image specifically created to trick your brain. You probably saw a lot of these as a kid, and you may have even thought they were fun. I know I did. I remember finding optical illusions in books, learning about the trick, and then quizzing classmates about them (I was a strange kid). I got satisfaction from knowing the trick to the picture, especially when others couldn’t see the illusion.
Once I got through graduate school, though, I realized that there are a lot of times where knowing the trick just brings up more questions. For example, let’s look at those lines again:
Yup, still lines.
The right one still looks longer, right? But we absolutely know that these lines are the same length! That’s why, to me, the big question is this:
Why does the illusion still work, even after we know the trick?
I was sitting in my college dorm room, working on some engineering homework, but I just couldn’t focus. My mind kept wandering back to the game. How could I have played so poorly? My teammates must hate me. Did I cost us a chance at the playoffs?
In college I played on the varsity baseball team and studied mechanical engineering. I worked hard on the practice team for 2 years and finally got my shot to start at third base as a junior. But things weren’t going according to plan. Third base has a long throw across the infield to first base, and I was having trouble making the throw accurately. By itself, this wasn’t unusual; every player goes through his funks and eventually works out of it. But despite hours of extra practice, I was stuck in a rut. My frustration culminated in a game in which I committed 4 throwing errors and we lost to an important division opponent by 1 run. My teammates had battled tooth and nail to make it a close game, and I literally threw it all away.