19 May 2009

More cognitive easter eggs

This week's NY Magazine is making me bounce all over the streets. And I'm not even halfway through it yet! The part that I want to particularly share is in the main feature, In Defense of Distraction. It talks about the dozens of things that divide our attention these days; whether or not they are terrible for us; whether or not the great minds of history would have been able to accomplish what they did in today's world ("If Einstein were alive today, [world multitasking expert David Meyer] says, he’d probably be forced to multitask so relentlessly in the Swiss patent office that he’d never get a chance to work out the theory of relativity."); etc.

Here is a little portion from the last quarter of the piece:
...The most famous moment in all of Proust, the moment that launches the entire monumental project, is a moment of pure distraction: when the narrator, Marcel, eats a spoonful of tea-soaked madeleine and finds himself instantly transported back to the world of his childhood. Proust makes it clear that conscious focus could never have yielded such profound magic: Marcel has to abandon the constraints of what he calls “voluntary memory”—the kind of narrow, purpose-driven attention that Adderall, say, might have allowed him to harness—in order to get to the deeper truths available only by distraction. That famous cookie is a kind of hyperlink: a little blip that launches an associative cascade of a million other subjects. This sort of free-associative wandering is essential to the creative process; one moment of judicious unmindfulness can inspire thousands of hours of mindfulness.
If that isn't a lovelier and better thought-out articulation of cognitive easter eggs than I could ever write, I will mistake my wife for a hat. Isn't that nice? I loved reading Sam Anderson's take on things.

I recommend reading the entire article, actually. A lot of interesting pieces of history and research come into it, and as serious a consideration this whole thing is, Anderson balances it with a great amount of humor and optimism for our future. Also, he endorses reading about the Boston Molasses Disaster two or three times ("The world is a stranger place than we will ever know"), and I wholeheartedly agree! I wrote about it last June, check it out. It's the oddest historical disaster you'll read about all week, I bet.
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