Tag Archives: New York Times

ADHD, MDHD*: Attention, Mindfulness and the Zeitgeist of Disorder

IMG00054-20100925-1729Four articles in three sections of today’s The New York Times on how we do (and don’t) focus our minds – and how we can (and might) do so for the better.  They’re onto something.

In his review of Daniel Goleman’s new book, “Focus:  The Hidden Driver of Excellence,” Nicholas Carr describes how Stephen Dedalus “monitors his thoughts without reining them in” as an example of open awareness, one of many types of awareness Goleman details (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/03/books/review/focus-by-daniel-goleman.html?smid=pl-share).  In “Jumper Cables for the Mind,” Dan Hurley reports on tDCS at Harvard’s Laboratory of Neuromodulation, and research that shows low voltage electrical brain stimulation seems to enhance any number of cognitive functions(http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/03/magazine/jumper-cables-for-the-mind.html?smid=pl-share). David Hochman, in “Mindfulness at Every Turn,” details the increasing reach of mindfulness: the Marine Corps, Silicon Valley, The Huffington Post (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/03/fashion/mindfulness-and-meditation-are-capturing-attention.html?smid=pl-share).  And Clive Thompson’s “Brain Game,” the subject of Walter Isaacson’s review, proposes an increasing reliance on “intelligence amplification,” human cognition harnessed to the power of computers (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/03/books/review/smarter-than-you-think-by-clive-thompson.html?smid=pl-share). 

As a psychologist and psychotherapist who has been involved in mindfulness education since the late ’60’s (when it was called meditation), and integrative medicine before it had a name, this explosion of interest in expanding awareness and increasing attention – improving the powers of the mind – thrills me.  I’m all for anything that increases compassionate awareness and improves attention:  for my clients, my patients, our children, and certainly myself.

The idea of “more, better” is as American as it gets, and I’m all for more and better when it comes to the mind.  But I’ve got some reservations about the how of all this.  The selling of mindfulness seems somehow antithetical to the very acceptance mindfulness cultivation strives for.  And it may seem a strange thing for a psychologist whose focus is on problem solving to say, but life is not simply a problem to be solved.

Hegel supposed that all art is a reflection of the time in which it is created; the same is no doubt true of the psychological arts.  Ours is a time when excellence is valued.  Not necessarily the pursuit of excellence, however.  We like our accomplishments big and easy and fast.  And the improvement of mental functioning, while often shockingly quick when we begin proper training, is indeed a lifelong practice.  In it for the long haul, not simply for today’s trend.

Training takes practice.  So why bother?

When we correlate attention solely with achievement, we limit what the mind can do even as we improve our chances for success.  Just as an efficient laser requires vast numbers of atoms in an excited state, our human laser-like focus, so crucial for excellence in completing many tasks, requires a ramping up of very specific kinds of attention.  As we learn more about the brain’s neuroplasticity – and apply ever more sophisticated technology – exciting real life applications will allow us to improve attention.  An eye surgeon focuses his attention as well as his laser beam, and a good thing that is.  But while a  laser can attain and sustain this heightened excitation and focus, we, on the other hand, experience stress in response to the demand for constant laser-like focus.  We can focus our attention sharply and well – but only for so long.

We also require rest.

But what is the nature of the rest we require?  Not the sort of lack of attention we often choose: multi-tasking, zoning out, mindlessly watching tv, texting while talking and walking.  Divided attention does not refresh, it simply provides a break from the intensity of single focus attention.

What is the awareness that refreshes?

Open awareness, mindfulness, the meditative state.  The form really doesn’t matter.  Pick and choose,  try a form that suits, or try one and switch to another.  What matters is the ongoing practice of focusing awareness, even while accepting all the gyrations of mind that accompany the attempt to do so.  We can quiet the “monkey mind” with practice, but not by ignoring or drugging away our thoughts and feelings.

Focused attention AND open awareness.  We need both for success in accomplishing our goals, and success in living a fulfilled life.  Both.  And both can be improved – greatly – through practice.   It may seem an oxymoron, but research has shown what generations (and other cultures) know: the work of improving attention and awareness mean less stress, increased productivity, and happier lives.

* Mindfulness Disorder, with and without hyperactivity

Copyright © 2013  Marlin S. Potash, Ed.D.  All rights reserved.  

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Empathy or Brains? Is it Really a Zero Sum Game?

Twice in the last two days I’ve read about the necessity to choose between heart and head when it comes to putting one’s best foot forward in public life. And the head doesn’t seem to be winning…
As Bob Stein put it on his blog: “Rahm’s Charm Offensive: In an interview on the PBS News Hour, the President’s Chief of Staff demonstrates the difference between being brainy and empathic–a problem that is becoming crucial to the White House.” Connecting the Dots: (http://ajliebling.blogspot.com/2010/07/rahms-charm-offensive.html)

And then Judith Warner writes in Sunday The New York Times Magazine about the coaching Elena Kagan supposedly received for her Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings. But just when she appears to lead us to the inevitable conclusion that dumbing down intelligence is the only way to let the empathic heart show, Warner writes, “Kagan triumphed — and she did it by beating the popular crowd at its own game. She made the senators laugh. That Chinese restaurant quip, her reflection that televising Supreme Court deliberations would require her to get her hair done more often — nothing could have been more folksy. Nor could there have been a surer sign of her true intellect”. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/11/magazine/11fob-wwln-t.html.

Once upon a time, I was accused of being an intellectual snob. As if this were a bad thing. As if preferring smart to dumb were somehow the mark of arrogance, inconsistent with empathy and goodness. As if the bigger the brain the smaller the heart.

Any hope for this radical thought: we needn’t choose head over heart – or heart over head?
I, for one, prefer a leader with 2 high IQs: BOTH Intellectual and Emotional Intelligence.

Copyright © 2010 Marlin S. Potash. All rights reserved.

The Depression of the Depression? Seems We’re on Our Way…

In  May, 2008, The New York Times ran an article by Sarah Kershaw on the psychic pain of the Wall Street layoff http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/25/business/25pain.html?partner=permalink&exprod=permalink.   When I talked then about the increased stress and strain my Wall Street patients were experiencing, I dubbed it “the depression of the depression.”  It was a kind of snappy figure of speech:  I’m no economist, and the U.S. economy at that point wasn’t even officially considered to be in a recession.  But I was detecting a level of fear, a kind of psychic stretch-to-the-breaking point so different from anything I’d seen before that I had to call it.  We laughed, and I prayed.

But I was seeing something in my practice even back then that I hadn’t seen before in over 30 years of treating financial services professionals.  It wasn’t a pretty picture.  It cut across orientation, strategy, sector, philosophy.  Hedge fund or private equity guys, day traders, analysts, private bankers, real estate folks and more were so stressed I needed another word for it.  Whatever aspects of the financial markets, business, money and information they were dealing with, well, these folks who thrive on challenge and competition, who love analyzing and processing information, who crave the feel of adrenaline coursing through their veins, were riding an emotional roller coaster that just kept going and going.  For some, it also kept giving and giving.  (Until it abruptly didn’t).  For others, it just didn’t feel like anything they’d seen before and they couldn’t wrap their heads around it.  And for some, they were having a tough time sticking with strategy.

But something was going on and it was affecting my patients and clients more and more than they were affecting it.

So here we are, months later.  Paul Sullivan writes about the  mind-set shift, anxiety triggered by the “wholesale collapse of three things in which Americans invest tremendous pride and self-esteem: homes, jobs and investments” : http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/07/your-money/07wealth.html?partner=permalink&exprod=permalink   

All manner of experts have opined, continue to.  Bernie’s come and not soon enough gone, and more Bernie wanna be’s emerge daily.  The times they are a changin’ and smarter minds than mine are, I do so hope, working on it.  For the rest of us, the ground’s still moving and we haven’t settled into the next version of normal. 

But I’m sensing a growing desire to slow things down, to disconnect from the race and reconnect to ourselves and one another.   To expand our definitions of success and happiness and what matters.  To breathe together…

Copyright © 2009 Marlin S. Potash. All rights reserved.