There are sometimes days when my thoughts slip away. They then feel like running chicks that I want to catch with my hands and which, if I succeed, usually disappoint: I just had this one too!
On other days it is calmer. My thoughts then seem like fish jumping out of the water every now and then while I myself sit on a camping chair to the side, watching what presents itself.
Thinking is fun, that’s for sure. In our minds we are free, and it is one of the few activities available every day for free. It’s also important: without thinking we wouldn’t be able to introspect, make plans, determine points of view.
But it doesn’t always work out well. One day the brain is sharp and faster than lightning, the next it’s a swamp where even the most determined explorer gets entangled. Everything influences this: weather, sleep, alcohol, mood, environment.
British columnist James Marriott recently described in The Times that he does his “best thinking” sometime between eight and twelve in the evening, lying on the floor: that provides the “serenity and heightened awareness needed to draw ideas from the shadows.” Personally, I think best during a simple task, such as walking or cutting vegetables, or when I’m watching something move. It could be the view from the train, the wind on the water, or, for example, the color changing light artwork in the faculty canteen where I studied. I’ve tried to find research that explains this phenomenon, but failed. Maybe it just works well if 20 percent of your brain is busy, leaving the rest free to play.
Thinking about thinking I recently thought: are we thinking enough? In the self-care circuit, from yoga to psychotherapy, it sounds like we’re too much ‘in our heads’. But what does that mean? I do believe that we pay too little attention to our bodies, but that doesn’t automatically mean we use our minds. More often we are escaping from body and mind: on our phone, with Netflix and podcasts. Every free moment we fill with external stimuli.
Recently, I was doing my shopping without the phone, and while waiting at the checkout, I involuntarily reached into my jacket pocket three times. My head felt like a toddler struggling impatiently in her high chair. I hesitate to write this because phone addiction is of course a huge cliché. But it is also crazy and a shame not to name problems because they have become clichés. And it is a problem, because the telephone is a direct competitor of creative thinking in the cash register. It is precisely there that I am sometimes jumped by interesting thoughts, like James Marriott, who mentions the supermarket as one of the places where he gets ideas.
Modern life is designed to make thinking impossible, Marriott writes in his column. We spend a lot of our time sitting in noisy office spaces, where a constant flow of emails and Slack messages prevents us from ever getting into something like a ‘flow’. Marriott sees this as a major problem: he cites the economist Sam Bowman, who recently appeared in the radio documentary The End of Invention stated that, despite the increased level of education, we have become less innovative.
In addition, I think our diminished thinking space is also a democratic danger. Those who take less time to think are more likely to adopt a ready-made opinion. That seems useful, but such an opinion offers no room for manoeuvre: you have not thought it through yourself, and therefore cannot really discuss it.
And then there is the psychological danger. Tech editor Marc Hijink described in an essay a few years ago how apps had come to dominate his life: “Even at the gym or in the bath, I listened to podcasts for work.” Finally he got a loud beep in his ear, which his doctor found overstimulation.
Throughout the day we let our thoughts be shouted out. Whether because of something interesting or something superficial, we pay a price for it. Creative, economic, political and personal. That’s something to think about.
Floor Rusman ([email protected]) is editor of NRC
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of May 28, 2022