If there is one thing worse than working for pay, it’s working without pay. The trick is to create a true post-work society, one that truly liberates human energies. Though the way forward is not immediately apparent, I have faith that the answers are waiting in billions of idle minds, and that the brightest among us have yet to realize that what they really need is a break, a chance to rest, a golden opportunity to do nothing at all.
In a recent paper on how the Occupy movement has reintroduced radicalism to the mainstream, Webb describes the fact that the discourse of individualism, market fundamentalism, and consumerism has come to so dominate our culture that we simply cannot conceive that society can be organized any differently.
This is in fact Arthur C. Clarke’s first law of prediction: “When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”
The more we believe in the impossibility of failure, the more likely failure becomes.
To the ancient Greeks, anyone who had to work to make a living was considered a slave. In modern society almost everyone has to work to make a living because we all owe someone money, or expect a bill to come due in the near future.
Most of the jobs politicians are perpetually promising to create are downright awful. For people without formal education, the countless jobs that each party claims to be able to produce are demeaning and tedious service-sector jobs at places like Amazon fulfillment centers that don’t pay enough for rent, healthcare, food, daycare, phone bills, or a car.
The purpose of science is to understand reality by trying to disprove theories using experiments.
The only system we know of in the universe that can be innovative is the human brain. But the brain seems to need things like freedom, long periods of idleness, positive emotions, low stress, randomness, noise, and a group of friends with tea in the garden to be creative.
With each new experience we have, our brain is irreversibly changed. These changes become more profound and stable if we rest between new experiences.
I suspect that the neural mechanism that Lawrence Ward identified in his auditory paradigm is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of how the right amount of noise in the environment and inside our brains enhances our cognitive abilities and makes us more creative.
Their results show that with moderate background white noise at about seventy decibels, participants were significantly faster at responding to RAT words and gave more correct answers than in low noise or high noise. In other words, moderate noise improves creativity, and a high noise level degrades creativity (as measured by the RAT).
Recent research by Ravi Mehta, Rui (Juliet) Zhu, and Amar Cheema in the Journal of Consumer Research entitled “Is Noise Always Bad? Exploring the Effects of Ambient Noise on Creative Cognition” found that moderate background noise improved subjects’ performance on the Remote Associates Test (or RAT), which is a well-established test that psychologists use to measure creative thinking.
But once you have a creative idea, you need to able to suspend your idea generator in order to focus and get your idea into a physical form. It turns out noise might help you stay in the optimal cognitive range for being creative and concentrating—whether you have ADHD or not.
What is bad for time management is good for art.
Because the brain is always trying to maintain homeostasis, some imbalance will often be addressed by a compensatory mechanism. In the case of low tonic dopamine, the ADHD brain compensates by releasing a very large phasic dopamine response to any signal.
This is a burst of dopamine, much like the one you get from doing something rewarding like smoking a cigarette, having whiskey, having sex, taking cocaine, drinking wine, eating very expensive chocolate, or of course doing nothing at all. This dopamine rush overwhelms the ADHD brain and it cannot help but focus on it.
In the noise field, stochastic resonance (abbreviated as SR) has become an important area of research over the last thirty years. Here’s the revelation: in nonlinear systems, adding a certain optimal amount of noise actually increases the signalto-noise ratio. In other words, adding noise to a faint signal might actually make the signal stronger.
Given the ubiquity of noise in the brain and the environment, it is not surprising that evolution has endowed biological systems with the ability to use noise to find the signal. In fact if our brains were without randomness, they would not be able to function.
[...] being insanely busy all the time is not only bad for you; it also prevents you from discovering the human being you were meant to be.
As Einstein indicated, we should each have the freedom to allow our own order and structure to emerge naturally and spend our days as we wish.
Anarchist Mikhail Bakunin wrote, “The freedom of all is essential to my freedom.” What he meant was that if some of us are enslaved, none of us are truly free.
They can reach a threshold beyond which the system completely and catastrophically falls apart. A striking example of this is how glaciers melt. They can withstand a certain amount of warming, but when the melting has reached a certain threshold (the popular term for this is “tipping point”) the glacier will start to disappear even if the temperature drops again.
Bertrand Russell defined work as, first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so. He goes on to say that the first is unpleasant and ill-paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid.
Unfortunately, there is a trend in the organizational leadership literature to use complexity science for the goal of business success. The strange thing is that no one is suggesting yet that we should instead use the brain’s self-organized behavior as a model to argue against imposing external organization on your life, since this more accurately reflects the brain’s composition and dynamics.
We know too that depression and anxiety are associated with abnormalities in the default mode network.
According to the article, when Harvard does not schedule enough social activities, the students and their parents get anxious.
Another student at Harvard quoted in the article marvels at how few intellectual discussions occur outside class. Apparently, if there is no officially-recognized academic advantage to be gained by having an intellectual discussion, then it’s pointless. Pursuing your own interests is even called “independent study” so that you can still write it on your CV, but students who actually have interests outside of padding their resumes are quite rare. Students are worried about having to “explain away” gaps on their resumes.
Just as muscles need time to recover after exercise, our brains need time to recover after engagement with the external world. For example, research indicates that young people who send text messages extremely often tend to score lower on tests that measure moral reflectivity. This could be because with each new text, the task positive network is engaged, thereby suppressing activity in the default mode network. We start to identify more with the phone in our pockets than the mind in our heads.
[...] when a child spends all day directing her attention to the external world her ability to understand “what this means for the world and the way I live my life” will be undermined.
It could turn out that most of childhood should be free-form daydreaming, playing without purpose, and the experience of unthinking joy in order for later mental health.
The only way to allow this process to happen is to be idle. Turning off the outside world for a significant amount of time each day without demands or expectations is necessary for children.
A child’s brain needs time to sift through everything that happens in a given day, consolidate these experiences, and integrate them into the larger self which is being formed through childhood.
Through the constant external demands and activities in which they are forced to partake, plus countless hours spent using digital devices, children have less and less time to introspect, process social and emotional experiences, and self-reflect.
In Rilke’s poem “Imaginary Biography,” he describes the horror of starting school, which for me involved sobbing as my mother left me standing in the line of other seemingly happy kids at the kindergarten door:
First childhood, no limits, no renunciations, no goals. Such unthinking joy.
Then abruptly terror, schoolrooms, boundaries, captivity, and a plunge into temptation and deep loss.
First childhood, no limits, no renunciations, no goals. Such unthinking joy.
Then abruptly terror, schoolrooms, boundaries, captivity, and a plunge into temptation and deep loss.
Rilke described entering school as entering captivity.
As children become more scheduled, more measured, more managed to achieve, and more hijacked by digital media, they become less and less creative.
Several studies have shown that the more toward the internal end of the scale you are, the less likely you are to become depressed and anxious.
Psychologists have long used a questionnaire to assess the degree to which people feel control over their lives called the Rotter Internal-External Locus of Control Scale. If you score toward the internal end of the scale you feel that you are source of control over your life, and if you score toward the external end of the scale you feel that your life is controlled by someone or something other than you.
Rilke knew that spending time doing nothing was extremely important for his creative process.
“The only journey is the one within.” —Rainer M. Rilke
We categorize adults who sit in contemplative moods as flakey, spacey, or lazy. But for your brain to do its best work, you need to be idle. If you want to have great ideas or if you just want to get know yourself, you must stop managing your time.
We have to wonder how many young potential Isaac Newtons we are stifling just so we can control them in school and at home.
Fortunately, the only way to attain this optimal level of default mode activity is to put your feet up, find a nice pillow, lie back, and let go of task-oriented activity. Looking at great art, listening to your favorite music, and doodling may help facilitate this process.
In fact, recent evidence indicates that in neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, the default node network is disrupted and shows less activation. This could be one reason why it becomes so difficult for Alzheimer’s patients to recall memories: the information stored in their brains cannot make its way through the network.
Conversely, people with schizophrenia show hyperactivity and hyperconnectivity in their default mode networks. If your default mode network is too active and its nodes have too many connections, you can have problems differentiating between reality and fantasy. There is a long history to the study of the relationship between genius and madness. Many scholars have argued that there is a fine line between the two.
[...] in males, the prefrontal cortex does not finish maturing until about age twenty-five. I mentioned above that the prefrontal cortex is responsible for skills like decision making, planning, impulsecontrol, and self-reflection—skills that many males under twenty-five tend to lack.
While you run around like a decapitated chicken in your daily life, trying to manage your schedule, trying to keep up with all your mobile devices, posting to your Twitter and Facebook accounts, receiving text messages, composing emails, and checking off to-do lists, you are suppressing the activity of perhaps the most important network in your brain.
What we do know now is that brain plasticity is possible throughout our lifespan. So it truly is never too late to learn a new instrument, to learn a new language, or to radically change your life: your brain will change, too.
It’s as if the brain decided to expand the airports in these areas to allow for the increased demand in traffic. It’s unknown how fast this type of structural change can happen in the brain.
A fascinating example of perceiving far-traveling, ultra-low frequency waves was when the elephants and other animals in Thailand reacted to the approaching tsunami in 2004. Hours before any humans noticed the ultra-low frequency vibrations of the giant wave, the elephants could feel it and they headed to the hills well in advance of the destructive wave. This is because elephants can hear and feel frequencies far below the human threshold. These low frequency sound waves can travel hundreds of miles.
This is called memory consolidation. It is especially important when you are learning new ideas or skills. So the best thing to do after learning new information is to take nap, or at least be idle.
On the time-scale of a lifetime, constant stress from overwork raises your risk of depression, heart-disease, stroke, and certain kinds of cancer. It’s a long, horrible list.
Yet we feel obliged to risk our long-term health in order to work extremely hard at jobs we don’t particularly enjoy in order to buy things we don’t particularly want.
Do not confuse this with the myth that we only use ten percent of our brains. What science has revealed is that we use all of our brains, just not in the ways many people assume.
[...] when you leave important parts of your brain unattended by relaxing in the grass on a sunny afternoon, the parts of your brain in the default mode network become more organized and engaged. In your brain, the dishes do wash themselves if you just leave them alone. It turns out your brain is never idle. In fact, it may work harder when you’re not working at all.
When you activate your default mode network by doing nothing, it becomes robust and coherent. So, somehow our brains seem to violate the second law of thermodynamics which states that left unattended, things in general get messy and lose heat. This is called entropy. It’s why your kitchen just gets messier and messier the longer you don’t clean it. However, the old adage that “the dishes don’t do themselves” does not apply to the brain.
[...] regardless of what you are doing, your resting brain represents the vast majority of your brain’s total energy consumption.
It is generally accepted that the Cro-Magnon ability to be idle led to the “creative explosion” in human evolution. In biological terms, our brains are almost identical to Cro-Magnon brains. Once basic needs are met—food, shelter, protection from elements and adversity—it is no longer necessary to work.
Modern information workers are interrupted on average every three minutes by instant messages, email alerts, or phone calls. It has been estimated that at work you spend anywhere from twentyfive percent to fifty percent of your day just recovering from interruptions, asking yourself “where was I?” A study by Intel found that the effects of interruptions cost them a billion dollars per year in lost productivity.
[...] we do not have genetically specified brain structures for multitasking, and studies now show that multitasking makes you worse at each thing you are simultaneously attempting to do.
Our brains took millions of years to evolve in very different types of environments than, for example, a modern office. Humans only began reading and writing about five thousand years ago. This is why it is still such a struggle for us to learn how to read. We lack genetically specified neuronal structures for reading, and our brains have to recycle other brain structures when we learn to read. Speaking, on the other hand, evolved much earlier and we normally do not have to struggle to learn how to speak. There are stages to language acquisition that happen whenever a healthy brain develops in a language community, e.g., English, Spanish, or Chinese.
In the early 1990s, Steve Sampson, an anthropology professor of mine, was recruited as a consultant for a Danish computer company. The Danish company was hired by a company in Romania to modernize its operations. The Danes installed computers and an IT department. Everything seemed to function as planned, but a problem arose. After the computer system was activated and the employees were trained, people started leaving work at lunch time. Puzzled, the Danish managers asked why the Romanians were leaving halfway through the work day. The Romanians explained that the computers enabled them to do a whole day’s work in half a day, so when they were finished with their work they went home. My professor, an anthropologist, was brought in to help solve the minor crisis that ensued. The Danes were baffled that the Romanians did not want to do twice as much work now that they had computers, and the Romanians thought the Danes were crazy for expecting them to do twice as much work just because they could do it faster. This example illustrates a cultural gap, but also that technology such as PCs that are ostensibly supposed to give us more free time actually either reduce our leisure time or eliminate it.
We look back at the slavery system now and think it ridiculous and appalling. It is clear to us now how wrongheaded the very idea of slavery was. One day, we may look back at our work ethic in much the same way.
Another unique thing about humans is that we can afford to be lazy because of our technology and culture.
Humans are the only species that have created a communication system that allows us to create art and acquire complex bodies of knowledge.
Clearly, it is very important to be able to respond to the moment. Sometimes our survival depends on the ability to successfully meet this challenge. However, if that moment becomes every minute of every day of every month of every year, your brain has no time left over to make novel connections between seemingly unrelated things, find patterns, and have new ideas. In other words, to be creative.
[...] most of the brain’s activity is generated from within. External inputs usually cause only minor perturbations from the brain’s internally controlled program.
In the absence of anything in particular to do, the resting-state network lights up and starts talking to itself (i.e., you). This network has a coherent structure in the brain, and there is little variation from person to person. The resting-state network is involved in mind-wandering or daydreaming.
[...] if you are just lying in the scanner with your eyes closed or staring up at the screen, brain activity does not decrease. The area of activity merely switches places. The area that deactivates during tasks becomes more active during rest.
The “resting-state network” (RSN) or “default-mode network” (DMN), as it is called, was discovered by neuroscientist Marcus Raichle of the Washington University in St. Louis in 2001. This network comes alive when we are not doing anything. Raichle noticed that when his subjects were lying in an MRI scanner and doing the demanding cognitive tasks of his experiments, there were brain areas whose activity actually decreased. This was surprising, because it was previously suspected that during cognitive tasks brain activity should only increase, relative to another task or to a “flat baseline.” This led Raichle to study what the brain was doing in between his experimental tasks. What he discovered was a specific network that increased activity when subjects seemed to disengage from the outside world.
Bertrand Russell, one of the most prolific mathematicians and philosophers of the 20th century, wrote a book called In Praise of Idleness. In it, he writes, "I want to say, in all seriousness, that a great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by the belief in the virtuousness of work, and that the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work."
In military matters, the ancient Chinese held that a good general forces the enemy to exhaust himself and waits for the right opportunity to attack, using the circumstances to his advantage while doing as little as possible.
It has been estimated that each neuron only needs to send a signal through an average of seven path lengths to reach any other neuron.