As children, we are remarkably aware. We absorb and process information at a speed that we’ll never again come close to achieving. New sights, new sounds, new smells, new people, new emotions, new experiences: we are learning about our world and its possibilities. Everything is new, everything is exciting, everything engenders curiosity. And because of the inherent newness of our surroundings, we are exquisitely alert; we are absorbed; we take it all in. And what’s more, we remember: because we are motivated and engaged (two qualities we’ll return to repeatedly), we not only take the world in more fully than we are ever likely to do again, but we store it for the future. Who knows when it might come in handy?
But as we grow older, the blasé factor increases exponentially. Been there, done that, don’t need to pay attention to this, and when in the world will I ever need to know or use that? Before we know it, we have shed that innate attentiveness, engagement, and curiosity for a host of passive, mindless habits. And even when we want to engage, we no longer have that childhood luxury. Gone are the days where our main job was to learn, to absorb, to interact; we now have other, more pressing (or so we think) responsibilities to attend to and demands on our minds to address.
And as the demands on our attention increase – an all too real concern as the pressures of multitasking grow in the increasingly 24/7 digital age – so, too, does our actual attention decrease. As it does so, we become less and less able to know or notice our own thought habits, and more and more allow our minds to dictate our judgments and decisions, instead of the other way around.
You’ve likely had the experience where you need to deviate from a stable routine only to find that you’ve somehow forgotten to do so. Let’s say you need to stop by the drugstore on your way home. All day long, you remember your errand. You rehearse it; you even picture the extra turn you’ll have to take to get there, just a quick step from your usual route. And yet somehow, you find yourself back at your front door, without having ever stopped off . You’ve forgotten to take that turn and you don’t even remember passing it. It’s the habit mindlessly taking over, the routine asserting itself against whatever part of your mind knew that it needed to do something else.
It happens all the time. You get so set in a specific pattern that you go through entire chunks of your day in a mindless daze (and if you are still thinking about work? worrying about an e-mail? planning ahead for dinner? forget it). And that automatic forgetfulness, that ascendancy of routine and the ease with which a thought can be distracted, is just the smallest part–albeit a particularly noticeable one, because we have the luxury of realizing that we’ve forgotten to do something–of a much larger phenomenon. It happens much more regularly than we can point to–and more oft en than not, we aren’t even aware of our own mindlessness.
How many thoughts float in and out of your head without your stopping to identify them? How many ideas and insights have escaped because you forgot to pay attention? How many decisions or judgments have you made without realizing how or why you made them, driven by some internal default settings of whose existence you’re only vaguely, if at all, aware? How many days have gone by where you suddenly wonder what exactly you did and how you got to where you are?
What we need is a chapter from Holmes, to take his methodology and learn to explore the world mindfully, to remember that number of steps to dazzle a less-with-it companion.
Reprinted by arrangement with Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright © Maria Konnikova, 2013.