Can Meditation Help Engineers?

Posted on Monday, December 21, 2015

Shane Stutchbury

In a winning speech, engineering student Shane Stutchbury discusses the four-step mental exercise that has changed his ability to learn.

On October 5, 2015, chemical engineering student Shane Stutchbury won first place at the Reg Friesen Student Oral Paper competition, which took place during the 65th Canadian Chemical Engineering Conference in Calgary. The second-year student delivered his winning speech on the topic of “meta-attention”, a mental skill that can be trained through meditation. Shane believes that meta-attention could change the way students learn and perform at school.

Shane’s presentation, entitled “Train Your Attention: Learning to Listen Up”, discusses meta-attention, or in Shane’s words, “how much attention you’re paying to how much attention you’re paying”. Meta-attention is the ability to be consciously aware of your own attention and where it is being directed at any given moment. The goal of Shane’s speech was to share his own journey of improving his meta-attention in the hopes that it could help other students to do the same.

Attention is limited in its capacity and duration,” explains Shane. “It is also selective: your mind loves to wander, and I’m sure everyone experiences this on a daily basis. In my economics class last year, there was a guy two rows in front of me who would watch the hockey game on his laptop in 720p, it was beautiful. Of course, this made it difficult to concentrate on economics. This is an obvious distraction, but more subtle, internal distractions may arise as well. A voice bores into the back of your head: did we forget the milk? Distractions are incessant, and your attention wants nothing but to run after them.

Shane became suddenly more aware of these distractions after having read a book that changed his outlook. “It’s called “Search Inside Yourself”, and I know, it definitely sounds a bit “Self Help” section at Chapters, but this book has really made a big difference in my abilities as a student. It’s written by a man named Chade-Meng Tan, who was one of the first engineers at Google. Incredibly smart guy, terrible sense of humour, I recommend the book very highly.”

The book discusses the importance of meta-attention, and outlines a four-step mental exercise for training it: focus, wander, catch, return. The first step is to focus on an object. In meditation, the classic object of focus is the breath. Step two is to let your mind wander. The third is to then catch yourself wandering. “You need to realize that you are no longer focused on your object and that you are somewhere else,” explains Shane. “This is where the idea of meta-attention comes in. When I first started practicing this, I was blown away by how long it would take me to get to step three. My mind would stray, and it would be two, three, even five minutes before I could catch myself. I had no idea that I was so bad at paying attention.” Finally, for the fourth step, you must return your focus to the original object, closing the cycle.

Shane first began practicing these steps in the form of formal meditation. “It was exactly what you might imagine: I would sit in the lotus pose, eyes closed, chin up, breathing deeply. I would do this for about fifteen minutes every morning. Day to day, I certainly found improvements. However, as an engineering student, I found the results too intangible and soon lost the motivation to continue practicing.”

Then one day, Shane had an idea while sitting in class: why not continue practicing in an informal way, right in the classroom? “I was following the same four steps: focus, wander, catch, return. Except instead of focusing on my breath, I would focus on the lecturer. I’m sure it started out looking fairly strange; me sitting in an 8:30am class in the midst of everyone else dozing off, with my eyes wide open staring straight at the professor, breathing deeply.

Shane immediately noticed improvements in his ability to focus on the lecture. And best of all, he did not have to find free time for the exercise, but rather had to use his time in class more productively. “It started in the classroom, but I found that I was better at studying, watching movies, reading, listening to people. It changed the way I absorbed any kind of information.

Shane encourages everyone to try this technique, as he believes it could be very beneficial to his fellow students. “These days, professors are using increasingly complicated and new-age methods in order to engage their students in class: Top Hat, lecture tools, live quizzes, videos, and even viral videos. I want you to meet the professors halfway and take back some of that onus by improving your own ability to listen and learn. Just imagine, for every hour that you spend in the lecture hall, you learn more and miss less. For every day that you spend cramming before final exams, you retain more information. Wouldn’t it be an incredible thing to harness all of that cognitive power?

If you have an interesting idea for a speech, as Shane did, then please visit the Canadian Society for Chemical Engineering website to learn more about this competition.

The Faculty of Engineering would like to wish all students a happy and productive winter semester!

Shane Stutchbury and friends
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