Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - August 11, 2017

Doing nothing

Husband Art and I recently began watching an episode of the 1980s sitcom "Cheers." But then a minor aspect of the show sent my mind in a different direction, causing me to reflect on an article I had recently read in the June 12 issue of “Discover” magazine.

The show was from the time when bars began to install multiple televisions, I assume to keep patrons entertained and so, buying more drinks. Many eating establishments in the past three decades have followed suit. Today, a smartphone provides most of us with an even more ubiquitous source of continual entertainment.

It seems to me that every advance we make also has some downside to it. In the case of entertainment that is available 24/7, I have had this vague feeling that we may be overindulging. But that feeling has been tempered by the knowledge that as I get older, I may just be exhibiting a tendency to lament the loss of how things were when I was young.

However, after reading “The New Science of Daydreaming,” I discovered my reservations may have some basis. It brought to mind a situation from several years ago. A friend’s daughter came to live with us for a few months. She is a native Spanish speaker and her goal was to improve her English. But despite it being her choice to come, rather than engage in her surroundings, Lisa spent almost all her time on her phone with Spanish-speaking people. This was very different from when our “adopted daughter” Nadja came to us from Germany in the summer of 2005. Whether by choice or circumstance, Nadja was immersed in an English-language environment and so learned quickly.

When Art suggested to Lisa that she turn off her phone while we were working on English, Lisa said she could not! The way she said it reminded me of the reaction seen in addicted smokers when asked to quit. It was cannot, instead of will not!

While this seemed hard to believe, the "Discover" article mentioned a study by University of Virginia professor Timothy D. Wilson. Wired to a unit where students could apply shocks to themselves when deprived of the outside stimulation provided by friends or their phones, the students began to utilize the shock buttons to replace the loss of stimulation. They appeared to be addicted to continual sensory input.

The "Discover" article’s author Michael Harris suggests it goes beyond that. He, too, has experienced a combination of fear and guilt when letting his mind do nothing. Harris’ article is hardly his first on the subject, having previously written two books, “The End of Absence” and “Solitude.”

His "Discover" piece relates to research that suggests that our learned constant desire for connection to others and access to information has come at the price of insight and creativity. Brain studies seem to indicate that when we remove outside stimulation, the brain shifts to a mode where it processes past inputs that allow us to see the connectedness better. Said a different way, constant stimulation may press down on the accelerator of refining old thoughts, while placing the brakes on creative new ones. He likens it to the effects of sleep deprivation. In an effort to do more, we sleep less. But this reduces the Rapid Eye Movement phase of sleeping during which we consolidate memories and other aspects of the day’s events.

Harris used Isaac Newton as an example. Forced to leave the stimulating environs of Cambridge University by the plague of 1665, Newton returned home to the decidedly unstimulating family farm. It was there he formulated what today is called Newtonian mechanics, the physics that every youngster is taught in school.

I have often heard Art say that while to outsiders all engineers are alike, he can always tell a design engineer from the others. Most take established ideas and designs and apply the laws of physics to make a device a bit stronger or cheaper or more durable. In short, they work on refining what already exists. In large corporations, they may work in huge office areas divided into cubicles where they are members of teams, each working on a portion of a larger problem.

But the thinking of design engineers is not so orderly. A key insight or idea may occur during a solitary car ride or after awakening early in the morning while most everyone else is asleep and diversions are few.

I have found this to be true for me in something as simple as writing this column. It is difficult for me to write at the university, despite spending much more compensatory time at home doing university chores with the blessing of my boss. There are just too many distracting noises outside my university office door as well as a voice in my head that says, “You are at work, so you should be working on something for the university.”

Most of the time, I work on my column at home. And when I do so, I try to minimize all distractions. It helps when Art heads to his work. I feed the neighbor's cats so they don’t scratch at the deck door, begging for a handout. I sit in my “writing chair,” which is just the chair I usually sit in when I am at home. Everything I feel I may need - pictures, articles, scribbled notes, etc. - I place within arm’s length so I have as little as possible that may distract me. It is in that least stimulating of environments where I can withdraw from the world and its demands and focus on the thoughts in my head.

Harris finished by commenting that we may be the last generation who not only does not fear solitude, but actually embraces it. He further suggests that future generations may discover that disconnecting is not something bad, but is actually good for us. Doing nothing may be the secret to doing something important.

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