Down with Multitasking: Increase Your Productivity (and Charisma) by Mastering Singular Focus

Emma Seppälä, Ph.D explains the flaws of multitasking, and how meditation can help you achieve mental clarity, increase productivity and even up your levels of charm.

Emma Seppälä: In order to be successful people often think they have to constantly be achieving constantly going from one thing to the next crossing things off of their to do list. But as a consequence they're not in the present moment. And their productivity would be so much greater if they stayed present, as well as their performance on their tasks. What's more is that their relationships would improve drastically. So what research on charisma shows is that highly charismatic people are people who are able to be so fully present with other people and that's what leads to that incredible connection and that influence that they have.

Research shows that our mine actually wanders about 50 percent of the time and research also shows that when our mind is wandering we are never as happy as when our mind is in the present moment. So if your mind in the future worrying about something that's going to happen or in the past because you're regretting something or angry at somebody, you are more likely to feel more negative emotions. But when you're in the present moment, even if you were doing a task you don't particularly like you'll actually feel happier. But also what we know is that you'll be able to be more productive when you're in that state because you're going to naturally be focused.

One way that you can start to bring your mind back into the present, given its tendency to wander, is through breathing exercises and relaxation exercises. If you relax your body your mind will naturally start to settle down and breathing is a very effective way to do that very quickly. So meditation practices can really help you observe your mind, become aware of its tendencies, for example, its tendency to wander, and help you through that awareness and shift your attention back into the present moment. Meditation is an exercise in which you are engaging fully with the present moment. So it's a fantastic way to train your mind to be more present with what is going on right now.

We currently are in a time and an age were multitasking has just become the norm. We're constantly being pinged by our devices; we're constantly receiving emails and all day long it's as if we were being interrupted by from our stream of thought. What's more is that we interrupt ourselves. So we'll interrupt what we are doing to check our phones, for example. So multitasking, however, is very draining on our system. Our attention is constantly in demand. It's as if you're working on 12 different things at the same time you can't give your all to one of those things. With meditation practices you can really train your mind to be more present and help you to stay on task with what is going on.

Research shows that people who meditate can increase their attention span. In fact, some in some research studies we use a task called The Attentional Blink Task in which you show people a number of different images in very fast sequence and usually we would only pick up every fourth image. We don't actually see the others that's why we call it the attentional blink. Well, research has shown that after meditation retreat people tend to not show that attentional blink or to show it less, which is very interesting. It means that if we calm our mind we're somehow able to pick up things better in our environment, which also makes sense in terms of how divided our mind is with regards to multitasking and so forth. When our mind is very settled then we're able to literally see more things, register more.

Multitasking is considered a valuable if not crucial learned skill. It’s something to boastfully place on a resume for job applications, and one of the main ways teachers and employers encourage their students and staff to complete their work on time.


However, Emma Seppälä, Ph.D (science director of the CCARE at Stanford University, and author of The Happiness Track) believes that multitasking can do more harm than good. Despite multitasking being a staple aspect of life in the United States, Seppälä says it isn’t conductive to actual achievement. People are constantly checking their phones for new emails while in meetings or lectures, or playing Pokémon Go while eating lunch and responding to social media alerts. Our phones are everywhere, and so everywhere we go we are connected to our work, correspondences, news stories, and games.

Research shows that this isn’t leading to a more productive life, but rather to a more stressed life. The constant pinging of phones reminding us of everything we should, could, or would be doing, if it weren’t for something else, only leads to more worry, less attention, and less presence in our immediate environment. Seppälä says that instead of letting all the reminders distract us, we should use singular focus as opposed to multitasking. Getting one thing done at a time gives more mental clarity and produces better results. Working on so many things at once means attention to detail and quality is significantly decreased.

That is where meditation comes in. Meditation can increase attention span and lead to a healthier mind and better output at work. Research has even shown scientists that people who meditate can literally see more than people who don’t, and pick up on things that others don’t notice, as shown in the Attentional Blink Test. The ability to be fully present in someone else’s company is also the key factor in having charisma. The dedicated focus on one thing at a time allows people to get more done, and be more genuine in that task, which is why it’s ultimately better than the hyped-up practice of multitasking.

Emma Seppälä's book is The Happiness Track.

Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Dubai to build the world’s largest concentrated solar power plant

Can you make solar power work when the sun goes down? You can, and Dubai is about to run a city that way.

Photo credit: MARWAN NAAMANI / AFP / Getty Images
Technology & Innovation
  • A new concentrated solar plant is under construction in Dubai.
  • When it opens next year, it will be the largest plant of its kind on Earth.
  • Concentrated solar power solves the problem of how to store electricity in ways that solar pannels cannot.
Keep reading Show less

19th-century medicine: Milk was used as a blood substitute for transfusions

Believe it or not, for a few decades, giving people "milk transfusions" was all the rage.

Photo credit: Robert Bye on Unsplash
Surprising Science
  • Prior to the discovery of blood types in 1901, giving people blood transfusions was a risky procedure.
  • In order to get around the need to transfuse others with blood, some doctors resorted to using a blood substitute: Milk.
  • It went pretty much how you would expect it to.
Keep reading Show less