Saturday, December 01, 2007

Can't Think Now, I'm Busy

John Watson from The Age reflects on the importance of down-time:
publication date: December 1, 2007

In my lifetime, the number of Australians has doubled. When last I looked, our population was estimated at 21,150,121 and growing by one every one minute and 44 seconds. A second country has sprung up alongside the one of 10.5 million people recorded at the 1961 census, almost literally so as half of today's population is either foreign-born or born to a migrant parent. Only a minority would argue that Australia has not benefited from the resulting evolution of a more diverse, interesting and dynamic society, but it is also a more crowded country.

Australians are crowded not only by other people, but as a result of countless technological and social developments that, I suspect, have more serious implications for our collective capacity to think, create and remember. The reasons are to be found in the way the brain works, but more of the science later. Such thoughts have nagged at me since I read the writer Paul Theroux's reflections in The New York Times on "America the Overfull", in which he lamented the loss of "a country of enormous silence and ordinariness (and) empty spaces". Theroux acknowledged the seductions of nostalgia — "Yes, it is just silly and fogeyish to yearn for that simpler and smaller world of the past" — but the lost world he describes holds lessons for the creative, innovative nation that Australia aspires to be, as we have been told ad nauseam this past election year.

"I grew up in a country of sudden and consoling lulls, which gave life a kind of pattern and punctuation, unknown now," Theroux wrote. "It was typified by the somnolence of Sundays … There were empty parts of the day, of the week, of the year …" Of course, some people still see the value in setting aside such time each week in defiance of this 24/7 society. (A New Yorker cartoon by Robert Mankoff makes wonderful play of this by depicting a man bearing a briefcase and speaking into his mobile phone as he walks along a busy subway platform: "And remember, if you need anything, I'm available 24/6.")

For me, the contemporary relevance to Australia's "clever country" aspirations lies, paradoxically, in Theroux's recollections of a quieter past and, in particular, of the solitude of a long drive of the sort that we can rarely experience on today's crowded highways, even if we chose not to hop onto the next cheap and convenient commuter flight. Theroux paints the picture perfectly (although the italics are mine): "Late at night, in most places I knew, there was almost no traffic and driving, a meditative activity, could cast a spell. Behind the wheel, gliding along, I was keenly aware of being an American in America, on a road that was also metaphorical, making my way through life unhindered, developing ideas, making decisions, liberated by the flight through this darkness and silence."

When did you last have several hours of unbroken, idle contemplation to yourself? Our lives are crowded, noisier, faster, in almost every way. People, technology such as mobile phones, the internet and other mass communication, our ways of work, have all eaten into our time and space. The imperatives of productivity and efficiency demand that not a minute be wasted. Time is money. But the cost to our quality of thought is immeasurable. We are too busy to think.

This came home to me on election night, when Kevin Rudd delivered his acceptance speech from a lectern bearing the words "New Leadership. Fresh Ideas." Rudd is perhaps the most obviously intelligent politician I have met in the past two decades. Yet even he has succumbed to the pressures of running the political treadmill through a year-long campaign. Two samples from his acceptance speech illustrate how badly he lapsed into unthinking cliche, tautologies and what George Orwell memorably described in his essay, Politics and the English Language, as worn-out, "dying" metaphors.

"Today the Australian people have decided that we as a nation will move forward," Rudd began. "To plan for the future, to prepare for the future, to embrace the future and together as Australians to unite and write a new page in our nation's history." That was apparently so stirring he reprised it later, twice, in a brief speech. "It is time for a new page to be written in our nation's history. The future is too important for us not to work together to embrace the challenges of the future and to carve out our nation's destiny."

Australia's quest for a renewable energy source would be over were we able to harness the spinning of Orwell in his grave. His primary concern was not the aesthetics of language — though he valued that — but that "using stale metaphors, similes and idioms" came "at the cost of leaving your meaning vague", with "phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse". As Orwell explained, "the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you — even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent — and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself. It is at this point that the special connection between politics and the debasement of language becomes clear."

There is evidence to show Rudd has thought deeply about issues before this year, but the same cannot be said of last Saturday night's speech. It probably seems unkind to pick on him when so many others are guilty, as Orwell wrote, of using political language "to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind". But I pick on Rudd to show that even someone of his intellect is not immune from the numbing effects of nonstop activity and stress on fresh expressions of thought. We have all experienced the impact of stress and constant interruptions on our train of thought: our computer chimes in to announce the arrival of an email; the mobile goes off for the umpteenth time; a colleague hurries across for a brief consultation. Where were we? The shadow of a thought has already slipped away.

As for taking the time to come up with considered responses to complex problems, bugger that. There's no time to spare in the worlds of business and politics. The pressure is on for instant answers that show we are "on top of the problem". We often hear references to "policy on the run", but when did any politician go into contemplative retreat to think about policy solutions? When snap judgements are demanded and given as an issue arises, is it any wonder that short-sighted policies are the result? Just for once, I'd like to hear a politician ask for time to think about a new problem.

We seem to resent allowing even academics in their "ivory towers" the time that deep thought requires. They must not be spared the demands of productivity and efficiency, not when they are funded from the public purse. Universities are in effect treated as industrial-scale idea factories, required to produce more ideas with immediate applications, and fast. Yet the way the brain works, even the best of brains needs extended quiet time to make sense of existing knowledge and then to arrive creatively at new ideas. Whether big or small, most new ideas come to us in moments of idle contemplation. The worth of original big ideas can hardly be overstated.

An insight into the forces of gravity came to Isaac Newton when he contemplated the fall of an apple from a tree. John Conduitt, Newton's assistant and husband to his niece, described the moment in his account of Newton's life: "In the year 1666 he retired again from Cambridge to his mother in Lincolnshire. Whilst he was pensively meandering in a garden it came into his thought that the power of gravity (which brought an apple from a tree to the ground) was not limited to a certain distance from earth, but that this power must extend further than was usually thought."

Newton was meandering when he experienced his flash of insight, on which he built the foundations for the next two centuries of physics. We sometimes refer to such insights as a eureka moment, in reference to Archimedes' use of the term (Greek for "I have found it") at the moment, more than two millenniums ago, when he realised that the displacement of water depended on an object's volume and density. Legend has it that he was taking a bath at the time. It is no coincidence that neither Newton nor Archimedes was working head down at their workstations when inspiration came — although years of deep thought had preceded the moment the big new idea took shape. Such flashes of insight take place in quiet contemplative moments and involve a distinctive kind of brain activity, which shows up in brain scans, as connections between existing knowledge and a new idea are made. John Howard's prime ministerial walks became a subject for parody, but it isn't just the exercise that he and most of the rest of us need. In his temporary zone of self-created silence, save for the puffing of his entourage, he gave himself time to ponder the problems he confronted, to think. What we know about brain physiology also goes a long way towards explaining the apparent amnesia that operates in modern politics and society. I have struggled to understand, for instance, how journalists who were around at the time could ask Howard why he wouldn't sign the Kyoto Protocol when his government did, to much fanfare, in 1997. Not that most Australians don't suffer similar, apparently inexplicable memory lapses in their professional and private lives. We forget significant events and the sequence in which they took place as we rush on to the next item on the agenda, the next distracting activity.

The answer again lies in brain studies that have confirmed we also need time free of distraction to store long-term memories. For any memory to last, it must be transferred from short-term memory to long-term memory, which involves a physical and chemical process to create a memory trace. The memory needs to be physically embedded by connecting new and old knowledge in the brain. That takes about half an hour, which is why concussion victims cannot recall the period preceding their injury.

Even minor mental interruptions interfere with the memory consolidation process, so we remember best when we are unhurried and undistracted by the intrusion of other thoughts or demands on us.

The greater the focus of our attention, the greater the amount of information brought into short-term memory and then transferred and retained as long-term memory.

Social distractions, lack of sleep, anxiety and stress all diminish attention and memory; conversely, being rested and relaxed improves our ability to concentrate, think and remember. Aerobic exercise is also significant because increasing the supply of oxygen to the brain improves its functioning. It's not just politicians who work long and often unsociable hours. Most of us are probably deep on the deficit side of the brain's ledger of requirements for effective thinking and memory. Earlier this year, a Human Rights Commission report found that 16 years of economic growth had left Australians wealthier but time-poor and stressed. "A truly prosperous society is one that values time as well as money," it concluded.

The crush and rush of modern life impoverishes all of us by crippling our creative capacity and diminishing our wealth of memory.

We have been deprived of the long silences in which we can interrogate our own minds and wait patiently for previously unrevealed truths to emerge. We are poorer as people for this and, ultimately, poorer as a country whose hopes for a prosperous future depend heavily on the development of human intellect in a knowledge economy.

In politics and workplaces and at home we do so many things in old ways simply because we don't have time to take stock of what we do and think of new ways that are more efficient and more economically and environmentally sustainable.

It is not only governments that run out of ideas. We can change governments, but if we truly value ideas and creativity we'd also make changes to our crowded lives. At home and at work, we should all aim to create time and space for the simple, vital act of thinking.

John Watson is a senior Age writer.

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