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Paying Attention & Mindfulness: Sam Chase (Full Transcript)

Full text of mindfulness expert Sam Chase’s talk: Paying Attention & Mindfulness at TEDxNYU conference. In this talk, Sam explains what it means to be truly mindful and how every one of us can incorporate the practice into our lives.

Best quote from this talk:

“Very simply, mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to the present moment on purpose with an attitude of non-judgment.”


Sam Chase – Mindfulness expert

My name is Sam Chase and for the next 15 minutes I really hope you’ll pay attention.

Now I’m hopeful, but I am not going to let myself get too optimistic because I teach meditation for a living, and I study the science of conscious attention.

So I know a little bit about the kind of things that tend to happen inside the human mind. For example, I know that in 2010, a group of researchers out of Harvard got together to study the daily thoughts of over 5,000 people from over 80 countries.

One of the things that they found was that our minds are actually wandering about 47% of the time, which means if half of you are actually paying attention right now. I’m probably beating the odds by just a little bit.

But even more important than that, they also found that when our minds are wandering, we tend to be less happy than when we’re focused on what’s happening in the present moment.

Now mind-wandering actually has a whole bunch of benefits. It’s a huge part of how we do our creative thinking; it’s where all of our planning happens. It actually seems to be a big part of how we keep a coherent sense of ourselves, who we are as time goes by.

But when it comes to happiness, it seems like most of that happens in the here and now. And how we handle what’s happening in the here and now can get pretty tricky too.

A 2014 study brought together a group of hundreds of people probably a lot like you. One by one, these people were placed alone in an empty room for 15 minutes just to be with their thoughts.

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On the other side of that 15 minutes, most of those people rated that time as boring and unpleasant.

To find out just how boring and unpleasant, in a later version of the same experiment, before they put people alone in a room they gave them a painful electric shock. One of the totally unsurprising results of this study was that they discovered people really do not like painful electric shocks.

In fact, many of the people in the study reported that they would pay a significant amount of money to ensure that that experience never happened again. And when those people were brought into that empty room, this time they tweaked things just a little bit.

They said “You have 15 minutes to be alone with your thoughts. By the way, on the table, there’s a button. If you push that button, you’re going to receive the same painful electric shock that you just said you would pay to avoid; you don’t have to push it. If you do, it’s not going to make the time any shorter. It’s totally up to you. See you in a little bit.”

15 minutes later, 25% of the women, 66% of the men had pushed that button at least one time. Many of them pushed it several times. One guy who must have had a lot on his mind pushed it 190 times in 15 minutes. If you’re trying to do the math, let me help you out; it’s about once every five seconds.

Why on earth would we push that button? We don’t actually know. It could be boredom; could be anxiety; could be that sometimes pain feels less painful than thinking.

One of the things we do know is that for many of us when we’re let loose in the landscape of our own minds, one of the first things we can discover is it feels like a jungle in there. And sometimes we’ll do almost anything we can to get out.

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The philosopher Blaise Pascal once famously wrote that all of humanity’s problems stem from our inability to sit quietly in a room alone.

And if you’ve ever had a couple moments inside your own mind that would have you reaching for the button, well maybe you’d agree.

But our conscious attention is like a precious natural resource. And like every natural resource, its power is limited. Now there’s actually no way that we can calculate how much information the human brain can handle. But one simple estimate suggests that if we were to total up all of the information we receive every second from the sensory neurons in our body: sight and sound and taste, touch and smell… every second your brain is being bombarded by about 11 million bits of information.  

Anyone want to take a guess of how much of that information your conscious attention can handle? It’s about sixty bits… 60. The other 99.9994% of what’s happening around you, what’s happening inside you right now is being processed by parts of your brain that are operating largely unconsciously. And all of that experience might not ever filter its way up to your conscious attention.

So what do we do with all of that? Because so much of the quality of your daily life will be determined by how you invest and manage this precious resource of your conscious attention. Especially now when more than ever thanks to the miracles of modern technology, you can be texting while driving, while swiping right, while ordering Seamless, while skyping, while live streaming the season finale of The Bachelor. More things than ever are vying for this precious 60 bit bandwidth.

So what do we do? Wemultitask. We take this little conscious attention and we try to spread it out among everything so that we don’t have to miss anything.

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But one of the things I’m here to tell you today is you suck at multitasking. And so do I. Welcome to the club. Because they’re kind of multitasking that I just described, it doesn’t actually exist. It’s a a cognitive illusion, sort of like the way when you go to a movie you know what’s happening on the screen is just picture picture picture picture picture. But it feels like movement and you don’t ever second-guess it.

In a similar way, when you’re multitasking in the way that I just talked about, what’s actually happening inside your brain is that your conscious attention is ping-ponging back and forth from one thing to another again and again and again and again. And this all happens so fast that you can’t even notice it. It’s like the greatest trick the mind ever played was to fool itself.

Now one of the things that we know is that when we engage in this kind of behavior, psychologists call it task switching and when we do it, we’re actually worse at just about everything we do. So we multitask to try and do more things faster and most often we tend to take more time and perform worse in the process.

One study that literally followed people around throughout their workday found that when we get interrupted in a task, we probably won’t return to it for an average of 23 minutes, sometimes more.

Now I talk about this all the time and I know that there is at least one person in the room right now who is raising their objection and going wait wait wait wait, I multitask all the time and I am super good at it. Maybe you all have problems but I have got this down. And we have a study just for you.

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