An eye for detail is a matter of survival for birds of prey. Imagine spotting a mouse from the top of a ten-story building— hawks do this with ease. Human eyes have their limits, but we can stretch those limits if we sharpen the mind’s power of observation.
The mind is like a vast ocean, shallow at the edges and deep in the middle. It is easy to stand at the water’s edge with frothy water lapping at our ankles, but to swim in the middle of an ocean and survive the depths, takes fearlessness, training, and effort. The modern way of life, with our gadgets and devices—mainly the smartphone—all but ensures that we don’t dive into the depths of the mind where our innate potential resides.
Everyone has potential; it is the lack of desire to better ourselves and unwillingness to apply ourselves that holds us back from diving deep. Sometimes challenging ourselves to do things we are unfamiliar with helps us better understand ourselves and shows up areas we need to improve upon.
My recent cognitive challenge was the Law School Admission Test or the LSAT. Preparing for this test helped me understand where I was in my personal growth, and it helped me uncover limitations imposed by habitual and patterned thoughts. The LSAT, a notoriously difficult test, is a “thinker’s test” aimed to test dynamic, critical thinking ability.
Two main elements make this test challenging to master. One is the time element; there are five sections, each 35 minutes in duration, that require reading and comprehending at superhuman speed. The other is the attention to detail that is needed. This test assesses to read, reason, and analyze complex sentences and tackle “games” that test the ability to group and sequence variables using a set of complex rules.
Early in my preparation, I realised that I needed to enhance my ability to be observant and not miss small details to have any chance of doing well on this demanding test.
As we grow the mind’s observation power, we begin to see the world through a different lens. The English writer, D.H. Lawrence, said, “What the eye doesn’t see, and the mind doesn’t know, doesn’t exist.” The world around us may not change, but when we enhance our perception, what would have gone unnoticed previously comes into sharper focus, and we miss very little. It is like breaking down the monochromatic proverbial brick wall and replacing it with a large glass window that offers a kaleidoscope of colors and scenes.
A few years ago, I attended a meditation retreat set amid scenic lakes and forests north of Toronto led by Om Swami, a spiritual master who lives in the Himalayas. Ten minutes into one of the sessions, he asked us to recall any extraneous sounds since the beginning of the session. I could remember only one, the grunt of my neighbor clearing his throat, which I saw as a distraction to my concentration.
Despite being the speaker who had his audience in rapt attention, Om Swami listed close to twenty different sounds that escaped my awareness. They included chirping of the birds, leaves rustling in the wind, a door opening and closing, and so on.
A significant impediment to enhancing our observation power is harboring assumptions that influence our interpretation of the world. For example, when we travel to a new destination that we assume has nothing of interest to us, we create a “brick wall,” an unconscious mental barrier even before we arrive.
Consequently, we place hard limits on our power of observation, and we come away without learning anything new. However, it is possible to train ourselves to enlarge our window of perception, notice everything around us while maintaining the quality and depth of our focus and concentration, as demonstrated by Om Swami at the meditation retreat I attended.
Just as we cannot, in a single leap, go from the shallow waters into the deepest parts of an ocean, it is challenging to go from the noisy, superficial areas of the mind to its quiet inner reaches. Wherever we go, whether it is the busy streets of a large city or a quiet, scenic place, it is hard to get away from the point where mental distractions, social media, the internet, and our weak willpower intersect.
When we train the scattered, distracted mind to focus on one task and achieve mastery over the mind, we develop the ability to maintain our concentration for long periods without interruption.
This ability to maintain single-pointed concentration separates the high achievers from the rest. Cal Newport, a best-selling author and a computer science professor at Georgetown University, explores this concept in his book, Deep Work. He defines deep work as follows: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their limit.
Newport suggests that deep work requires long periods of uninterrupted thinking and cannot coexist with a state of fragmented attention, common in the workplace. He cites a 2012 McKinsey study that found electronic communication and internet searching occupied 60 percent of an average knowledge worker’s time during the workweek, with almost half the time spent going through the e-mail inbox and typing replies.
The antithesis of deep work is shallow work—noncognitive demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. Such shallow efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.
Although it may not be a cognitively demanding task like scientific exploration, meditation has many parallels with deep work, as discussed by Cal Newport. Both involve freeing oneself from distractions and developing single-pointed focus and concentration for prolonged periods. Om Swami, who has done over 15,000 hours of meditation, several thousand of those in a solitary setting in the Himalayas over a year and a half, says there is no substitute for hard work when it comes to mind mastery.
Although an individual subjective practice, meditation is receiving increasing attention from scientists studying its impact on the brain’s structure and function. Using imaging techniques such as the fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), researchers have demonstrated that meditation activates areas of the brain associated with attention, mind wandering, memories, and emotional processing.
Other studies comparing expert meditators with control subjects have shown increased brain gray matter volume—the portion of the brain involved with information processing . The effect meditation has on the brain is like enhancing the processing power of a computer.
According to a National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health study, about 18 million adults in the United States meditated in 2012 . The majority of these 18 million may not qualify as “expert meditators,” as defined by some scientific studies on meditators. However, any effort we expend in deep work, as defined by Cal Newport, will make a change in our brains for the better.
As anyone who has taken a standardized test in a time-constrained proctored setting knows, it is hard to be a high scorer unless one can concentrate intensely—tests, such as the LSAT, place extreme demands on one’s cognitive ability. Mastery of critical thinking makes all the difference between an average score and a high score on the LSAT.
Fortunately, this is a skill that anyone can learn. But it takes time, as the brain needs to adapt to new cognitive demands. Like practicing meditation, which influences the brain’s structure and function, researchers have shown similar changes in the brain of subjects who study for the LSAT.
Professor Allyson Mackay and colleagues from the University of Pennsylvania studied young adults enrolled in a 70-hour LSAT reasoning course and age- and IQ-matched subjects who intended to take the test at a future date. All study subjects underwent an fMRI study at baseline and 90 days. They found that the LSAT 3-month study period significantly strengthened the connection between the brain’s two hemispheres, specifically the areas associated with information processing .
I took the LSAT after two months of intensive preparation. I am no stranger to standardized tests; physicians like me need to take high-stakes standardized tests regularly to keep their credentials current. But the LSAT is unlike any test I have taken. There is no requirement to memorize large volumes of information, and it is not a test of one’s IQ. On the contrary, all the necessary information to deduce the correct answer is in the question stem.
The key to tackling the LSAT lies in taking the information provided, extracting the logic from it in a cold vacuum, and applying that logic and reasoning to arrive at the correct answer. For the arguments given, the test taker must first understand the discussion and find hidden gaps and flaws before tackling the problem. It sounds simple enough, but in practice, as I learned over my six weeks of preparation, it took a lot of work to make my brain adapt to that type of thinking.
Week one of my test prep involved understanding the fundamentals of the tests and the question types in the three main sections, without which the questions made little sense to me.
On social media and the internet, we frequently fall into the trap of believing whatever we read. Devoid of healthy skepticism, we buy whatever is said or written. To have even a remote chance of getting a good score on the LSAT, the first major hurdle I faced was rewiring my mind to avoid such traps. The usage of language in the question stems is purposely convoluted; for instance, the test makers generously sprinkle double negatives throughout the test.
In the analytical reasoning section, involving logic puzzles, I did not, at first, understand how to translate the conditional rules for the variables into diagrams to solve the questions. Apart from a few lucky guesses, all my answers were incorrect. I quickly realized that I could not carry what I learned from one question to the next. Each quiz was unique, tricky, and unpredictable. There was no fixed pattern I could discern. It forced me to train my brain to think within the framework of formal and informal logic. I spent a large portion of my time trying to understand the reasoning behind the questions’ words.
Numerous blog posts and YouTube videos forewarn that there is simply no time to waste on the test. Every second counts. Inaccuracy is LSAT’s number one sin, which the grading curve severely punishes. On the actual test, one of the four logic puzzles was hard to understand. By the time I was able to comprehend the rules, I had run out of time.
There was only a minute break between sections, not enough to unwind the brain and make it ready to adapt to the next set of questions. Not getting that logic game caused enough psychic damage that it carried into the next section. It took every ounce of my willpower to bring my mind to a neutral state.
In all, I clocked over 350 hours of studying, spread over six weeks, averaging 50 to 60 hours a week. Regardless of the results, my biggest takeaway from this challenge is that the mind and the brain are pliable, and we can train ourselves to go beyond what we perceive as our cognitive limits. Preparing for the LSAT made me a sharper thinker, a better reader, and more observant.