When we’re stuck inside our heads, our experience of the world is two-tenths of a second behind the present moment. In practically any situation, social or physical, that’s a serious disadvantage. In every way that matters, two-tenths of a second is an eternity.
This is why a lot of people stress the importance of “living in the moment.” But I don’t like that phrase. It carries too many connotations of spirituality and abstraction that are too vague and esoteric to be of much help to many people.
Think about it: what is living in the moment? How can we characterize it, emotionally and cognitively? What are the mental circumstances of living in the moment: when does it “start” and “stop”?
Now, you might say that it’s different for everyone—or something to that effect—but the reality is much simpler. We all have brains; these are the engines that create our conscious experience (and govern many other processes). Although our experiences may be fundamentally different, they all come from fundamentally the same machine. Therefore, the science of thought—cognitive science—can tell us something about how we come about “living in the moment.”
But because that phrase is already taken, and already has too much baggage, I use the phrase: living in real time.
The problem with living in real time starts in the brain: When our sense organs first capture information from the world, that information gets processed by the relevant brain areas: visual information gets processed by the visual cortex, auditory information by the auditory cortex, etc. But then all of that information gets transmitted to the prefrontal cortex, located behind our forehead. The prefrontal cortex then combines all of this information and generates our conscious experience.
When we’re admiring a beautiful mountain panorama, our mind is often completely at rest. For long periods of time, we may not think a single thought, and yet afterwards we can recount most of what we were experiencing, from the detail of the landscape to the emotions it caused in us. Even though we weren’t thinking, we were quite conscious of everything around us—perhaps even more so than usual.
In other words, there is more to consciousness than just thoughts—which cognitive scientists now call conscious access. When we conjure up a thought, certain brain areas related to the prefrontal cortex sample from the vast pool of subconscious information and puts it into a zip file—a nice, compressed package. This zip file is what we call a “thought.” But it takes the brain two-tenths of a second to generate the zip file.
Also, a large amount of mental real-estate is needed to keep this thought “active.” By thinking, our conscious experience becomes mostly about that thought; the brain doesn’t have enough of the “mental workspace”—a technical term—available to process new information.
So, when the stream of conscious experience becomes interrupted by a thought, it takes roughly the same amount of time—two-tenths of a second—to go back to it after the thought has been “deactivated.”
Most of the time, we’re thinking about all kinds of stuff, whether it be our insecurities as I mentioned above, or some pressing matter at work, we only become aware of whatever snaps us out of the thought about two-tenths of a second after it happened.
Incidentally, this is why they say that you get worse at multitasking the better you get at it: by switching back and forth quickly from multiple tasks, you lose two-tenths of a second from every switch—and that’s without counting the time that it takes to become fully engaged in the new task. If you can switch back and forth seven times per minute, you just lost over second. If you can switch back and forth twelve times, you just lost three seconds. And if you crystallize your identity as “a multitasker,” then you run the risk of becoming beset by this “skill:” multitasking is a loss of control of conscious access. That means you have a runaway prefrontal cortex that doesn’t know how to play nice with the other members of the cerebral team.
Training our minds to engage in conscious access only willfully (and not reflexively) will make us much more effective at interacting with whatever is in front of us. We’ll be able to interact much more quickly, for the reasons mentioned above, and much more aptly, because a conscious thought is only a sample of a much larger pool of information. Basing our responses on the entire pool instead of one particular sample means that our responses will be much more tailored to the needs of the present as it emerges.
Four-Count Breathing, an exercise commonly used for meditation, is that common precisely because it allows us to gain executive control over our conscious access. (You may notice that using the term “conscious control” would be somewhat vague at this point). Thanks to a bunch of really cool physiological effects, it allows us to link our mental periodicity—the pulsations of conscious brain activity—to our breathing. As we become skilled, we can use it to meet a multitude of physiological responses face-to-face, including the autonomic stress response (ASR) that so often accompanies surprise, emergencies, extreme anaerobic exertion, fear, and so many other things.
Fact of the matter is, we don’t have to be beset by our thoughts. We don’t have to be shackled to the constant mental reminders that we might have a new e-mail or a new text message. This isn’t a manifesto against cell phones. I argue that our insecurities, our thoughts, and our electronics don’t have to encroach on our consciousness, popping us out of the present moment into a mental dreamworld that supposes that time and reality starts and stops by its leave.
Wouldn’t it be so much better if, every time we reached for our phones, or thought about a mistake we made, it wasn’t because of reflex? Wouldn’t it be better if we decided?
This post is intended to make you aware that there are answers to these questions. Just so you know, it can be done.