As I get older, I find myself getting a little more forgetful. I forget what I wanted to research, forget what I wanted to buy at the store, and forget where I put that whatchamacallit — you know, the doohicky with the whatzit on top; I just had it two minutes ago. Since I’m not a professor, and therefore can’t justify being absentminded (or wearing tweed jackets with leather patches at the elbows,) it’s been a subject of frustration. My memory didn’t used to be quiet so sieve-tastic. It’s really been a fairly recent thing – mainly since I first lived on my own; moreso since I moved. I chalked it up to getting older, or being too stressed, or not writing in a daily journal as much as I once did. I’ve even tried playing some memory boosting games more often. But according to this article from ScienceDaily, research indicates that maybe I just don’t do enough nothing.
“Our findings support the view that the formation of new memories is not completed within seconds,” says [physiological scientist Michelle] Dewar. “Indeed our work demonstrates that activities that we are engaged in for the first few minutes after learning new information really affect how well we remember this information after a week.”
Anecdotally, I believe it. I don’t give myself much – really, any – time to just loaf. I’m always working, or reading something, or writing something, or making something, or doing something. I feel anxious and guilty if I’m not doing something productive, and even more anxious and guilty if I’m not, at the very least, assimilating new information of some kind. It’s hard for me to even watch a movie without feeling like I’m missing out on something. The fact that I work from home and can more easily choose how to allocate my time only makes it worse – I could, in theory at least, always choose to be working; if I’m not working, for whatever reason, I could be working on a personal project; if I’m not doing either, I could be doing something else constructive; if none of the above is true, I could at least be playing some kind of game (since it has a purpose and a win condition that I could be striving toward.) Therefore, any choice to do absolutely nothing at all is… well… bad.
However, this reminded me a bit of the “Bed, Bus, Bath” phenomenon, which seems to be one of those things everyone knows about, without knowing who started it. My search for attribution turned up everyone from Wittgenstein to Einstein to Bohr to Kohler. (And, full disclosure, I totally did it again: put this post on hold for days, because I was busy trying to figure out the background of the idea.) But I couldn’t find anything reliable, so anyone unfamiliar with the concept will just have to take my word for it, for now.
The Bed-Bus-Bath phenomenon describes how moments of great understanding or inspiration often come to us not when we’re actively striving for them, but when we’re resting in bed, riding the bus, or lounging in the bath. It’s one of those jocular ideas that doesn’t seem to carry much scientific weight, and which you couldn’t even test for – but it’s anecdotally compelling.
I know it’s happened to me quite a few times.
I think, based on nothing but my own anecdotal conjecture, that Doing Nothing and the Bed-Bus-Bath phenomenon are similar in their psychological mechanisms, but with a few crucial differences. Furthermore, those differences may not have as much to do with psychology as with sociology.
Doing Nothing is a very passive thing. It’s the most passive thing. You can’t possibly pretend you’re doing something – unless maybe you say you’re meditating, or checking your eyelids for holes. So if you’re the sort of person who is prone to self-judgement or overworking or low self-esteem, etc, you are stuck there with yourself and there is nothing you can do about it.
What’s the difference with Bed-Bus-Bath? And what IS it about the bed, the bus, and the bath that makes them so conducive to inspiration? Four things.
1) You’re trying to accomplish something. Whether you’re going somewhere, getting clean, or falling asleep, having a goal to reach satisfies the accomplishment-hungry parts of your psyche, and keeps them from demanding attention.
2) Despite that goal-seeking, what you’re doing is not completely subject to your control. You can’t make yourself fall asleep any faster, you can’t make soap lather or rinse any faster, you can’t make the traffic move any faster.
3) What you’re doing doesn’t drain your focus. Yes, some part of your brain is thinking about what you’ve washed and how to wash it, or whether you’re on time or not, or whether or not your pillow is comfortable, but for the most part, you’re not using your forebrain very much.
4) What you’re doing is self-justifying and cannot coherently be judged. This, to me, is the clincher. There are a LOT of semi-mindless tasks that can put one “in the zone,” but which need to be justified. Maybe weeding the garden keeps your hands busy and your forebrain free, but someone could easily ask, “Does that really need to be done? Right now? Couldn’t it wait? Didn’t you do it the other day? Does it even matter?” Nobody could coherently argue that you should be doing something productive while you’re on the bus or walking somewhere. Nobody could sensibly say that you aren’t being useful enough while you shower. And someone would have to be a special kind of crazy to say you weren’t being useful enough while trying to fall asleep.
Furthermore, these activities can’t be critiqued. (Well, okay; the way I walk has been rightfully critiqued many a time, but we’re talking normal people here.) Generally speaking, nobody’s going to judge your form as you walk down the sidewalk. You aren’t in control of how the driver drives the bus, so you’re not culpable there. The act of falling asleep is neither art nor skill. And only the irredeemably rude, and mothers, could criticize how you wash.
Because of these four things, your hindbrain is placated with a sense both of productivity/progress and rest; your emotional bits are not worried about judgement or self-justification or worth, and your forebrain is free to go wherever it likes. You’re not Doing Nothing, but you’re not quite Doing Something, either. You’re not even Doing Enough, because that implies that you could still somehow do it to a greater or lesser degree. Instead, you’re simply Doing What You’re Doing.
And in that condition, when your actively thinking forebrain is not clamoring with other concerns, you’re able to devote your mental resources to other things. You’re more open to noticing small details in your surroundings that are too unimportant to pay attention to under normal conditions. You’re also more likely to be freely-associating your thoughts. Between the two, something you notice or something you think about is more likely to cue up some other thought or memory, which is also likely to be something that isn’t worth thinking about in most of your daily life – or so you believe. But when you get into free-association, and let your brain cross-reference itself, you can make surprising connections – direct connections, or possibly just metaphors, that give you new inspiration.
Doing Nothing helps the brain to spend a little time thinking about whatever you’ve been experiencing, and to file it away, maybe cross-referencing it with other experiences or memories. Unlike Bed-Bus-Bath, though, we’re more prone to recognize our doing-nothingness and to see it as something to work against. That is, we’re more likely to think about what we just experienced and to contextualize it than to let our minds wander entirely. So I can see how this pure Doing Nothing is better for memory – we’re striving to do something, so what better to do than to just keep thinking about whatever we were already thinking about?
Why, then, is it so hard for us to let ourselves Do Nothing?
I think that, given American work culture’s gross and puritanical emphasis on productivity – we’re the only industrialized nation in the world that does not have any guaranteed annual leave or paid holidays – we collectively don’t let ourselves stop and take a break. It’s just Not Done. No matter how much we want to do it, no matter how much we need to do it. We work late, work without pay, answer emails from home, don’t take all of whatever vacation days we do have, come in sick, and we never have any assurances that our work was for anything. We can still get fired, demoted, laid off, our hours cut, etc. on a whim, if we’re suddenly “not in the budget.” Nevermind any other place that the budget could be cut – it always starts at the bottom. How can we afford to risk looking unproductive, even for a moment? How can we afford to look like a slacker? Better to eat at your desk. Better to at least look like you’re studying something on your break. Better to not even take a break, or to take it only when your work is done, and if your work is never done then oh well, that’s your fault – you should work harder.
Is it any wonder we’re all, collectively, so incredibly anxious all the time?
From my own experiences with anxiety of various kinds, I know that quiet solitude is not the panacea one might think it would be. You inevitably think about what you should be doing, could be doing, and everything you’ve been doing wrong. Having time to collect your thoughts is really just time to slow down and realize what a horrible disorganized ugly mess of a person you are and to realize, even if you gave yourself a week to think, you’d never be able to untangle how you let your stupid life get this bad. Better to drown it out with something. Doing some kind of activity, watching TV, somehow keeping some part of your brain engaged with some part of the world around you. Denying yourself any time for personal reflection or recuperation. If you were good enough, fast enough, smart enough, strong enough, you wouldn’t need to rest. The very fact that you feel a need to rest is proof that you are flawed, and that you should therefore work twice as hard to make up for it so that nobody takes note of your failure. And if you have decided to rest in some way – well, you’re a lazy slob; work three times harder. Or, facing that massive amount of activation energy required to go from rest to full-bore flawlessness, it’s easy to just give up.
Doing Nothing is nothing doing – but relaxing and opening ourselves to inspiration in the Bed, Bus, and Bath? Now that, we can do a little more easily, since there’s the pretense that we’re doing something. Right? Not quite so much. Anyone with a smartphone – which is practically everybody – seems to use any spare minute to do something. Read, talk, text, research, email, game, whatever. So long as we have the means to do something, we also tend to feel the obligation.
This is where the strange facets of sociology come in. Where individuals are trying to meet cultural and social expectations of a society that’s made up of individuals. I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t like to genuinely relax. Who wouldn’t like to let go and stop being anxious, if just for a little while every day. Who wouldn’t like to stop living in constant anxiety and stress and fear.
But we see everyone else being competent – or at least looking like they’re competent – and we push ourselves to the same. It’s not like we can quit. It’s not like we have choices. It’s not like anyone else cares about our lives except us. And we only deserve to care about our own health and happiness when we’ve worked ourselves to and past our breaking point – when we’ve proven that we no longer care about either one.
We can’t afford to do otherwise.
When we’re in the greatest need of rest, of calm, of comfort, of inspiration, of creativity… of Doing Nothing, or at the very least, of accepting that we’re Doing What We’re Doing and acknowledging the sufficiency of that… that’s when we deny it to ourselves most often.
Or maybe that’s just me.
(I went on more about my own personal experiences with both phenomena, but cut them out to better get to the point. I’ll put ’em in another entry, if anyone shows interest.)