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DOWNTIME for the BRAIN
November 30, 2012 6:04 AM   Subscribe

"Having felt what it’s like to have all the backlog of experiences cleared out of my head, I’m intolerant of letting it build up a backlog again. It feels too good when it’s all clean and clear. Another way of talking about this is to say that the frantic, amped up feeling of too much seeking clears away. When we are seeking all the time, we are intaking new material constantly without ever actually dealing with it."
posted by 2or3whiskeysodas (31 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite

 
This has me wondering now about all these tabs I have open, yet have little time to properly read.
posted by ZeusHumms at 6:24 AM on November 30, 2012 [10 favorites]


It's amazing how harshly our culture damn boredom.

Someone says they're bored. We respond: Oh, you're bored, are you? Where do you get off? How could you be bored when you live in the most amazing time in history, when you have access to every song, book, and movie ever made at the press of a button?

Or let's say you're bored at work, or bored in your career. How dare you? Here are some supplemental materials to advance your career along with a hundred blog articles about being bored at work and how to fix it. Or if that doesn't work, go into another, more interesting career – here is a list of the top ten.

The worst hell on earth we can imagine is a person trapped in a boring life, repeating the same boring activities every day, never getting anywhere, never striving for anything, no challenging job and no creative hobbies, just barely getting by with what they've always had. And if this person actually likes their rote life of routine, we call them boring. You are a boring person, Mr. I'm-Bored-And-I'm-Not-Trying-To-Do-Anything-About-It.

The zen of the boring.
posted by deathpanels at 6:44 AM on November 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


that was a good read, and the Slate article it links to is equally worthwhile.
posted by moss free at 6:45 AM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's amazing how harshly our culture damn boredom.

There's a distinction to be made between fasting and starving.
posted by mhoye at 6:50 AM on November 30, 2012 [8 favorites]


My brain was emptying out of thought content, and instead was filling up with silence.

I went backpacking for a few months and opted not to bring any music devices with me. The change from daily, familiar music to none at all is odd enough -- odder than I expected -- but the really odd thing was that after a week or so without them my brain started to bring up complete songs of its own accord. Not things I missed or would have normally listened too, either. I'd stare out a train window for two hours, perfectly content, and then all of a sudden *pop*: there's a late 90s single in my head running it's course from beginning to end.
posted by postcommunism at 7:10 AM on November 30, 2012 [6 favorites]


What I am suggesting is that our brains require some real down time.

Serious question: doesn't eight hours of sleep cover this?
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 7:11 AM on November 30, 2012


Sometimes it is good to just sit and spell awhile.
posted by arcticseal at 7:13 AM on November 30, 2012


Been trying to get into meditation for stress relief...my conclusion...it's hard work doing nothing.

Thanks for the article.
posted by incandissonance at 7:14 AM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Serious question: doesn't eight hours of sleep cover this?

I think it doesn't when we indulge our brain with a scatter shot information fire hose every day. That's an incredibly new phenomenon for most human lives.

I just put a library hold on The Information Diet. We'll see if I can actually take it to heart. If so, been nice knowing you Metafilter!
posted by mcstayinskool at 7:17 AM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


"A-w-h-i-l-e."

I think I have exhausted the possibilities in that. On to the next thing now.
posted by Wolfdog at 7:26 AM on November 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


Cool article, great sciencey tidbits.

I think it doesn't when we indulge our brain with a scatter shot information fire hose every day. That's an incredibly new phenomenon for most human lives.

I'd be inclined to agree. I know I had more restful sleep before the age of the Internet. Of course, that was also before the weight of the world crushed my spirit, in the immortal words of Homer.
posted by Z. Aurelius Fraught at 7:42 AM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is another reason I hate ebook readers. It's too easy to switch around between books or even, on some, browse the web.
posted by DU at 7:45 AM on November 30, 2012


I enjoyed this article a lot. I think this is my favorite part:
"Number one: schedule some time each day to do nothing. Walk in the park. Sit in the tub. Walk in the park. Chill out and hang out. Doing this with other people, as long as it doesn’t become too mental, is great."
It's like a sitting-in-the-tub sandwich with a cold drink to wash it all down!*
(Just don't add more than one or two fizzy bath bombs**; that'd be crazy.)

This bit also made me laugh heartily: "The drive to seek is deeply baked into the brains of mammals, and it is deeply baked into you."
Or this: "...evolution did not favor animals that sat around all fat, happy, and satisfied with themselves."

Also, I was reminded of this podcast that I often go back to: Tara Brach's "Relating Wisely to Desire." Her basic premise is that "we can't be fully present if we are wanting things to be different." She goes on about all the different ways we find ourselves leaning toward something, and how that act of seeking, wanting, grasping can cause a lot of unintended suffering and stress in our lives.

*That would be, like, the best day ever. I don't have a tub and the park is currently flooded. Metaphorically and otherwise.
**or people

posted by iamkimiam at 8:06 AM on November 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


"Mammals are wired to look for novelty in the environment, a behavior called 'seeking'."

This definition is where the goodness in the article comes from — I really think that this guy is on to something. People go every day, all day, looking for novel things. Not finding novelty, they become bored, and this compels them to keep searching. However, as soon as a new thing is found, it is discarded as well; the constant search itself becomes boring.

This urge for seeking is why you can't sit at home alone. It's why you can't peacefully watch the sunset. It's why you feel like you need to take a picture of this or that and share it on facebook. It's why you go to a movie and barely spend 5 minutes afterward talking about it. It's why you have 10 tabs open. It's why you compulsively check facebook. It's why people can't sit quietly and wait for 30 seconds without taking out their phone to "do something".

When was the last time you sat down and just ate something? You didn't read, surf the web, watch videos, or send text messages: you just sat and ate. You enjoyed your food, you noticed the act of chewing.

This isn't craziness, this is being present. This is enjoying what you have and what you're doing at the moment, without constantly thinking that you need to do something else, or worrying about what's next.

When was the last time you noticed yourself breathing? Or walking? Or listened to your own words as you were saying them?

I have lived with people who can't stand to be at home. They get home and they pace like a caged lion, wandering from one room to the next. They pick up a book and put it down, pick up a guitar and put it down. They rush all over the house making a mess, because they don't have time to clean, because they're fixated on what's next. Then all of a sudden they pound down the stairs and out the door, and roam from one place to the next, doing so much but very little at the same time.

This is a disease that permeates our entire culture. And the only solution to it is doing less.
posted by jinkoh at 8:31 AM on November 30, 2012 [18 favorites]


Ecstasy and guilt are two parts of the pattern []. Even more important is heroism. Whether as hero-lover or hero-hermit denying matter but with an ear to nature's breast, or hero-conqueror who slays some slimy dragon of public evil .... lost its freedom. Life becomes a performance [].

(I removed what Dr. Hillman blamed for all that lost authenticity. It was unimportant. The point is to stop trying to be a hero and feeling guilty for not being some mythically great person.)
posted by surplus at 8:48 AM on November 30, 2012


Interesting timing on this; for the week after Christmas, I will be joining some friends to help break in their new guest house in Moab, Utah. They're one of my favorite couples, and I am looking forward to a lot of group hikes and dinners and such.

But I've also realized that while I'm there, as fond as I am of them and as much as I enjoy their company, I will also be doing two or three hikes solo, because on some gut level I realize that I need to.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:52 AM on November 30, 2012


He makes very big assumptions about how placid and peaceful Paleolithic life was. If human populations had expanded to the natural limit of their food supply, which populations tend to do, Paleolithic life might have been a struggle for survival in which you had to endlessly hustle for food, mating opportunities, status within the group. Chimpanzees don't sit around peacefully admiring the view, they endlessly jockey and fight for the social rank that gets them mates and food.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 8:59 AM on November 30, 2012 [4 favorites]


What the author said about seeking behavior really made sense to me. I've been doing it all my life, but I would love to try and alter that behavior a bit.
posted by orme at 9:03 AM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


My brain works best in the shower. No externalities. Just rhythmic patter of water on tile and simple, repetitious activities that I can do with no thought whatsoever. I think he's onto something here. What a great read!
posted by Ephelump Jockey at 9:18 AM on November 30, 2012


The worst hell on earth we can imagine is a person trapped in a boring life, repeating the same boring activities every day, never getting anywhere, never striving for anything, no challenging job and no creative hobbies, just barely getting by with what they've always had.

The hell on earth I can imagine is worse than your hell on earth. Mine would probably be something like ADX Florence.

This is another reason I hate ebook readers. It's too easy to switch around between books or even, on some, browse the web.

Heh. The Web is the least of my distractions. KEN-KEN.

This is a disease that permeates our entire culture. And the only solution to it is doing less.

Parenting is a great cure for this. Once you've got a little demon or two sucking up your last precious moments of free time (with high-volume relationship stress usu. included), you will learn to treasure the moments of silence and nothingness. Plus, you're trapped at home (while the young kids nap), so by nature you're doing "less" (just don't get addicted to online gambling or shopping!)

I'm surprised sex wasn't mentioned at all. 30 days of silence or fasting wouldn't be so bad. 30 days without sexual release? No. I'm not a big fan of wet dreams, lol.

That Slate article is really good if you missed it.
posted by mrgrimm at 9:54 AM on November 30, 2012


I have lived with people who can't stand to be at home. They get home and they pace like a caged lion, wandering from one room to the next. They pick up a book and put it down, pick up a guitar and put it down. They rush all over the house making a mess, because they don't have time to clean, because they're fixated on what's next. Then all of a sudden they pound down the stairs and out the door, and roam from one place to the next, doing so much but very little at the same time.

One of my new favorite customs at my birthday is to (try to) get everyone to observe a 5-minute moment of silence. 5 minutes is a long time for some people to stand silently amongst a group. For me, I could go hours, but it's always interesting to see the amped up types try. 2 minutes is usu. the breaking point for most.
posted by mrgrimm at 9:56 AM on November 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


Being involved in practicing kung fu makes this a very interesting subject to me. I have one of those minds that never stops going and is always hungry. Everything is interesting to me. I switch from one medium to the next. It's hard to spend time without mental input for me.
The physical aspects of training are pretty much the only thing that can successfully and lastingly disrupt that pattern. When moving in full concentration there is nothing else. No inner dialog, no verbalizing, no thinking about things... just movement. And while it is usually exhausting and/or painful on a physical level, I normally end up feeling like a slept soundly for many hours. My mind feels fresh and ready to go. More so than after actually sleeping.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 10:21 AM on November 30, 2012


Mmmmm... eating Double Stuf Oreos and repeatedly having orgasms.
posted by Flunkie at 10:40 AM on November 30, 2012


It's why you feel like you need to take a picture of this or that and share it on facebook. It's why you go to a movie and barely spend 5 minutes afterward talking about it.

One of the more vivid examples I noticed of this was when I saw Lykke Li perform a few years ago; it seemed like at any point during the concert, easily two-thirds of the audience had their iPhones up recording it -- like there was this defensiveness against the direct experience of actually watching the performer perform in front of you in favor of mediating the experience by looking not at the performer herself but rather a screen on which the performer appears, in anticipation of preserving or sharing the recording as an artifact of having been there. It's like... it's not enough to just watch something; the watching itself must be watched.

And yet... I think back of all the hundreds of concerts I've gone to since the early '80s for which there is no recorded artifact (with one famous exception). And, if given the chance, would I love to be able to see snippets of those specific shows again? Hell yes I would -- in a heartbeat. So while I don't understand the impulse to record a concert at the expense of fully engaging in the concert itself, I do understand the desire to have that artifact of the experience years down the road.

But then I wonder: is part of the intensity and preciousness of those memories to me derived from the fact that, at the time, the experience of going to a concert was never presumed to be anything but fleeting? If I could have recorded every time I ever saw REM or Billy Bragg or the Psychedelic Furs or whomever (and thus re-watched them countless times since then), would those experiences still mean as much to me now as they do?
posted by scody at 12:30 PM on November 30, 2012 [5 favorites]


I think this is the most sensible article advocating mediation that I've ever read.

The "you-must-stamp-out-desire-and-not-think-and-sit-uncomfortably-for-long-periods-of-time" thing has always come across to me as moralistic and ascetic, two things that are guaranteed to rub me the wrong every time. Maybe that's my own projection, but it really is how it comes across to me, no matter how many disclaimers people offer to the contrary.

But reframing desire as novelty (and/or reward) seeking behavior, and reframing meditation as giving the "modern" brain a break from this never-ending loop makes perfect sense to me.
posted by treepour at 12:34 PM on November 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


I think he's conflating two different things here:

One is the length of the attention span, which can be trained to be long or short. Modern life is definitely shrinking our collective attention spans, making people less "present" in the activities they're engaged in.

And Two is the overall level of stress in a person's life. Taking three months to go to the country or just finding time during a regular day to meditate are both ways to "reboot" the average stress level, sending it down to zero for awhile. This is very helpful if you experience a lot of stress, but not so much if your life is already pretty copacetic.

Two can certainly help train you to deal with One, but not everyone needs both. For people who aren't particularly stressed out but still feel their attention span dwindling, simply eliminating distractions can help. Turn off the phone for a while, take a walk in an unfamiliar neighbourhood, read a difficult, long book, do a crossword puzzle or maybe write a poem. Just spend a little time each day concentrating on something that challenges you, and that can provide the same benefit as quiet meditation.
posted by Kevin Street at 3:20 PM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't bring anything with me to eat, although most of the meals I eat are perfunctory, solitary, and eaten at odd hours. I send, maybe, 4-5 text messages per month from my phone-that-is-not-a-smartphone. I don't have an e-reader or a tablet device. I only look at the TV when my housemates have it on. I don't own a portable music player, and can't stand the idea of background music. I take time to stare blankly into space several times each day. I can only read fiction in intervals of over 30 minutes (so no reading on public transport). I like to watch clothes tumbling in dryers, flames flickering in artificial fireplaces, and the rotisserie channel.

Practice at being boring makes me better at coping with boredom, but I'm not sure it makes me better off in a broader way. I guess I could have felt worse off had I not been born with these remarkably boring qualities, but it's hard to know for sure.
posted by Nomyte at 5:49 PM on November 30, 2012


Parenting is a great cure for this. Once you've got a little demon or two sucking up your last precious moments of free time (with high-volume relationship stress usu. included), you will learn to treasure the moments of silence and nothingness.

This is why I never wanted a dog when I had kids at home. With cats, there is no expectation--even when a dog is lying quietly at your feet, there are so many expectations: pet me, play with me, let me out/in, exercise me, teach me. Now having a dog is a joy and great company.

I've been very fortunate in my life to have long stretches of time to reflect. The only time I'm bored is when I'm forced to do meaningless tasks by authority. In which I then actively search for ways to subvert the system.

posted by BlueHorse at 12:38 PM on December 2, 2012


Quite relevant to what I heard today at work from a coworker: "I'm too busy to meditate".
posted by flying_trapeze at 4:33 PM on December 3, 2012


This means that the system is rigged: there is much more desire to seek than to be rewarded. We would rather look than actually find.

This explains the 500 items on my Netflix queue. I don't want to watch something on Netflix, I want to see what I could watch. If I wanted to.
posted by Bron at 7:11 PM on December 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


Chimpanzees don't sit around peacefully admiring the view, they endlessly jockey and fight for the social rank that gets them mates and food.

This reminds me of Robert Sapolsky's Primate Memoirs. Baboons only need to spend 4-6 hours a day gathering food, and they spend the rest of the time being as horrible as possible to each other. No time to sit and watch the sunset.
posted by estuardo at 9:08 PM on December 11, 2012


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