How can we best tweak and optimise our mental machinery for peak performance? Drugs and some forms of meditation are offered as means to the goal. But what if ‘savant’ skills were actually in some sense our mind’s default, before we all got so educated, and so distracted?
Are you looking to do things faster and more efficiently, with more focus? Or maybe you are striving to be actually more intelligent? You’re certainly not alone. In both the student world and business worlds, there’s a plethora of smart drugs being taken to achieve just this, and intelligence seems an ever-expanding product with a huge market. In a world where so much information has already been gathered and is available online, intelligence is now less about mental storage and more about active skills, such as seeking, measuring, comparing, making connections, building structures.
Clearly, without getting too much into the spiritual debate, there’s a sense in which we rely on some mental machinery which can certainly be tweaked and optimised.
There are two ways to go about that; one way has been taken by pharmacology and the other by meditation — and they have more in common than you might imagine. While the pharmaceutical industry is more obviously rapacious, there’s a mindfulness industry also packaging up techniques and selling them as ways of achieving certain effects. The principle is the same — that our internal machinery can be optimised — but while the pharmacology route claims that this may be done by introducing an outside agent, the meditation route claims that it may be done by changing the way we use our attention. Hence we buy knowledge about a process to implement, rather than an outside agent which does all the work for us.
I was fascinated by a passage in a recent Guardian review of The Genius Within: Smart Pills, Brain Hacks and Adventures in Intelligence, by David Adam [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK]. I haven’t read the book yet, so I don’t know even what research is being referred to here, let alone whether it is being accurately represented, but I found this paragraph intriguing and resonant with my own intuition:
Adam explains some intriguing research that suggests “savant” skills — such as extraordinary arithmetical or artistic ability — could in theory be “awakened” in anyone by dialling down a part of the brain that usually suppresses them, the better to engage in the kind of abstract thought that modern society demands.
Maybe getting people to use their full potential is less about enhancing, strengthening or ‘putting in’, and more about stopping doing all the things we do that have the effect of suppressing our deeper skills. The kind of thought ‘society demands’ is one that depends on constant ‘enhancement’ and constant input. There is so much distraction and compulsion to respond built into our experience, exacerbated by the big players in the online world, such as Facebook, setting up addictive systems in which to capture our attention and data, that we simply don’t stand a chance unless we make an intentional effort to recoup our own attention. We need this in order to engage in any kind of proper thinking at all. By proper thinking I mean not superficially reacting to stimuli.
Once we have freed up the resources to think at all, next we need to suppress the habit of thinking in abstractions. I understand this as thinking ‘about’ events, processes, etc. as units that we have labelled in a particular way, keeping them in a consistent order, hence never coming into full-on contact with things, or with our own intuitions — the sparks, leaps and gaps that occur when we allow our intuitive process direct contact with the events, the processes, the numbers, the words, the paint.
This kind of full-on contact is only possible when we have a very undistracted mind and the ability to intentionally focus attention. This is clearly necessary in order to access ‘savant’ skills. It is intriguing to imagine that such a mind is not something we need to strive to attain or facilitate with drugs, but is actually waiting underneath all our bad habits. Of course it is not obvious that it is within our power to ‘dial down’ the ‘parts of the brain’ which suppress certain activities, but it’s my understanding that neural connections can usually be stimulated and new pathways forged through engaging in new activities. So if we were to drop the habits that siphon off our mental energy, then just through natural focus and direct contact with a process we might all be able to access some of what is now considered to be the elite quality of ‘genius’.
It’s worth a try…
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on February 12, 2018.
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