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January 5, 2013

Slate: Do you think like Sherlock Holmes?

(Continued)

NEW YORK —

The confluence of seeing and observing is central to the concept of mindfulness, a mental alertness that takes in the present moment to the fullest, that is able to concentrate on its immediate landscape and free itself of any distractions.

Mindfulness allows Holmes to observe those details that most of us don't even realize we don't see. It's not just the steps. It's the facial expressions, the sartorial details, the seemingly irrelevant minutiae of the people he encounters. It's the sizing up of the occupants of a house by looking at a single room. It's the ability to distinguish the crucial from the merely incidental in any person, any scene, any situation. And, as it turns out, all of these abilities aren't just the handy fictional work of Arthur Conan Doyle. They have some real science behind them. After all, Holmes was born of Dr. Joseph Bell, Conan Doyle's mentor at the University of Edinburgh, not some, well, more fictional inspiration. Bell was a scientist and physician with a sharp mind, a keen eye and a notable prowess at pinpointing both his patients' disease and their personal details. Conan Doyle once wrote to him, "Round the centre of deduction and inference and observation which I have heard you inculcate, I have tried to build up a man who pushed the thing as far as it would go."

Over the past several decades, researchers have discovered that mindfulness can lead to improvements in physiological well-being and emotional regulation. It can also strengthen connectivity in the brain, specifically in a network of the posterior cingulate cortex, the adjacent precuneus, and the medial prefrontal cortex that maintains activity when the brain is resting. Mindfulness can even enhance our levels of wisdom, both in terms of dialectism (being cognizant of change and contradictions in the world) and intellectual humility (knowing your own limitations). What's more, mindfulness can lead to improved problem solving, enhanced imagination, and better decision making. It can even be a weapon against one of the most disturbing limitations that our attention is up against: inattentional blindness.

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