The Case for Contemplation

The pace of modern life is frenetic.  We juggle responsibilities, social obligations, and personal goals like circus dancers, constantly moving from one to the next. 

Even during our downtime, there is no downtime.  Phones buzz, WhatsApps arrive, the news begs to be checked.  Most of us can’t remember the feeling of being truly bored.  The moment we feel bored or unproductive, we chase those feelings away with our smartphones, or some other “important” task.

Our minds oscillate between active thinking and passive thinking.  We work, or we surf.  When we work, we challenge our neural pathways. When we surf, we let algorithms do the thinking for us. 

Modern day men compare the brain to a computer. To improve our mental skills, we find ways to improve our abilities to calculate and strategize, we solve brain puzzles and learn new skills.  Undoubtedly, these things do increase our brain power.

But whatever happened to quiet contemplation?

Studies indicate that our brains have two different setting: the executive attention network and the default mode network.  Both are important.  The attention network is what allows us to learn skills and accomplish tasks.  But time spent letting the mind wander in the default network is linked to increased creativity and projecting into the future.

Modern neuroscience says that when we’re in an inattentive state (ie: bored), our brains still use 95 percent of the energy we use when we’re engaged in extreme focused thinking.  And 3 areas of the brain that shut off when we are actively thinking, turn on when we daydream.

As Manoush Zomorodi, author of the book Bored and Brilliant writes, “When we lose focus on the outside world and drift inward, we’re not shutting down.  We’re tapping into a vast trove of memories, imagining future possibilities, dissecting our interactions with other people, and reflecting on who we are.”

Turns out that sitting around doing absolutely nothing could actually be, well…productive.   So, how do we increase our time for quiet contemplation and step out of our brain’s active mode?

If you find it difficult to simply disconnect and stare off into space, you can try to tap into your brain’s default network by introducing more physical activity into your life.  Whether hiking, walking, or going for long bike rides, physical activity gives us a chance to tune out the noise of life…and tune into our default network.  There’s a proven link between motor activity and improvement in fluid intelligence, our ability to creatively solve problems.

Step outdoors into nature and reintroduce quiet contemplation into your life.  Your mind will benefit in ways that you’d never thought possible.

contemplation in nature.
Walk, think, repeat.

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