- "Your Cell Will Teach You Everything":Old Wisdom, Modern Science, and the Art of Attention
A brother came to Scetis to visit Abba Moses and asked him "Father, give me a word." The old man said to him "Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything." 1 Among the Desert Fathers, Christian monks of the fourth and fifth centuries, it was customary for a novice to go to an elder and ask for "a word," a word of advice, of counsel, a word to take home and reflect on. What does this word of advice say to us today?
A Multitasking World
"Your cell will teach you everything." To my students, this seems like very strange advice indeed. "Your cell?" When I quoted Abba Moses to a colleague he instinctively reached for his phone. But a monk's cell? Isn't a monk's cell empty, isolated? What can that cell possibly have to teach? And how? The lives of the young men and women I teach are the very antithesis of sitting in a cell. Their attention is fragmented, divided by an array of modern technologies. I watch them walk by my office window, iPod plugged into the ears, cell phone or Blackberry in hand as they check e-mail or send a text message. Time in their rooms is characterized by one eye on the television and another on the computer, on which are open their theology paper, an instant messaging box or two connecting them to friends, their Facebook page, in case one of their friends should post a status update, and perhaps a Twitter feed or their favorite blog. They assure me that they have grown up multitasking. Young Americans spend an average of six hours a day using nonprint media, and at least a quarter of that time they are using more than one screen, device, or channel.2 They are connected, linked in, logged on.
It is not just the student who multitasks while doing homework. The average office worker is interrupted roughly every three minutes during the workday, interruptions that the worker herself often initiates.3 These include the phone, e-mail, [End Page 83] checking websites. As more jobs move to the knowledge and service sectors, more of us find the temptation to multitask at work irresistible.
But what effect does all this multitasking have on the person? We're not getting more done, for one thing. Several recent studies have shown that, contrary to self-perception, people really can't multitask. The brain cannot concentrate on several things simultaneously. Instead it switches focus from task to task the same way a computer does. This means that all tasks are slowed down somewhat by the switching process, and the attempt to coordinate too many tasks can lead to more time being devoted to the switching than to the tasks at hand, a phenomenon computer scientists have long been aware of, known as "thrashing." Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at MIT, notes: "Think about writing an e-mail and talking on the phone at the same time. You cannot focus on one while doing the other. That's because of interference between the two tasks."4 Miller notes that in an MRI you can actually see the brain struggling as it shifts rapidly from one to the other.
One can see that this might have a deleterious effect on one's work life. Research shows that, once interrupted by an e-mail or a phone call, the average worker can take up to half an hour to return to full concentration on the task at hand.5 But why does this matter for the spiritual life? Over time, multitasking erodes our ability to pay focused, close attention, and this eventually eats away at traits such as patience, tenacity, judgment, and problem solving. This is most evident in the latter. In a test of fifteen-year-olds, the United States ranks twenty-fourth out of the twenty-nine developed countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development on problem solving skills, with nearly 60 percent of them scoring below the most basic level of using a single...