We’re inundated on a persistent basis by toppling amounts of information, five times the amount consumed daily in 1986. This is tantamount to reading 174 newspapers a day, cover to cover. So says Daniel Levitin, Ph.D., neuroscientist and the author of The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in an Age of Information Overload. Are you keeping up? Silly question—the reasonable part of us knows that’s no longer possible.
Try telling that to your brain, though, sold as it’s been on the merits of binge information consumption, often combined with multitasking—that well-marketed illusion that obscures the fact that the brain is primarily designed to focus on one task at a time and, when it’s called on to multitask, it does so at a cost. Productivity, accuracy, and levels of personal and professional satisfaction all suffer. There’s a neuropsychological price, as well; extreme periods of unrelenting brain on-ness deplete glucose and other metabolic resources, vital neuronutrients that would otherwise be used for deeper, soul-feeding levels of immersion and focus. In Dr. Levitin’s words, “Multitasking is metabolically expensive.” From the vantage point of the human spirit, it’s downright dispiriting.
Add to this the ballooning number of choices we’re called on to make in our increasingly-congested marketplace—podcasts, cold-pressed drinks, phones, news feeds, pens, IG posts, running shoes, microbrews, etc.—against a backdrop of the too-often alarming soundtrack of our broadcast and social media and you can begin to hear, if you listen closely, the unmistakable sound of your own besieged, beleaguered brain begging for relief.
Fortunately, you know just where to find it. You’ve known this all your life, having mastered these kinds of skillful reprieves as a young one romping in the park, darting through the forest, or losing yourself in the reveries of your own imaginings, those days when your curious, meandering mind led the way in the direction of the possible.
The brain is like a see-saw, Dr. Levitin offers, shifting naturally between two modes of attention: task-focused and mind-wandering—the brain’s day-dreaming mode which, Dr. Levitin suggests, is the mind’s natural state. We’re born into this mode, inhabit it for much of our early life, and often carry an overarching, aching wish to return. In mind-wandering mode, there are no performance goals or productivity benchmarks. Instead, the mind freely roams, led by the allure of piqued curiosity and unquenchable interest. That initial spark of insight that often precedes task-focused problem-solving and creativity is most likely to occur in mind-wandering mode. Perhaps most important, this meandering, dreamlike mode replenishes and restores supplies of essential neuronutrients drained by too much think-think/go-go/do-do.
The benefits of mind-wandering are indisputable if we’re to bring full mind capacity to those tasks commanding our attention. And yet, we can find ourselves treating the meandering mode as discretionary and even disposable, “child’s play” that we can no longer shoehorn in. Yet, the research is clear: Disproportionate involvement in task-focused activities without a commensurate level of mind-wandering is tantamount to placing a foot on one side of the see-saw and then wondering why the ride is no longer fun.
It’s possible to inoculate, restore and replenish your brain and your being with ample amounts of mind-wandering and, fortunately, it doesn’t take a whole lot to make it happen. Is there a park within walking distance of your front door? How about a deep forest? When was the last time you visited? Too much rain or cold or snow or darkness to venture out? No worries—you can reap fortifying, neuronutritional benefits by mind-wandering from the comfort of the chair you’re sitting in right now, as the portal into this mode can often be found at the threshold of good reading. In her seminal work, Women Who Run With the Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Ph.D. observes:
There is around us and about us a constant beckoning world, one which insinuates itself into our lives, arousing and creating appetite where there was little or none before. In this sort of choice, we choose a thing because it just happened to be beneath our noses at that moment in time. It is not necessarily what we want, but it is interesting, and the longer we gaze at it, the more compelling it becomes.
When we are connected to the instinctual self, to the soul which is natural and wild, then instead of looking over whatever happens to be on display, we say to ourselves, “What am I hungry for?”
Is that on the smörgåsbord? Maybe yes and maybe no. In most cases, probably not. We will have to quest for it a little bit–sometimes for a considerable time. But in the end we shall find it, and be glad we took soundings about our deeper longings.
Image: Wassily, My Muse. Watercolor, pastel, collage