Friday, 18 December 2009

The "I'm doing something" revolution

idle - landscape photo
I use the metro every single weekday to go to work. About a third of the passengers I see are listening to music from their mp3 devices (or at least pretend to do so). Another third is reading a book/ magazine/ newspaper (or pretend to be reading) or checking/ composing SMSs. From the remaining third, some chat with each other, some talk on the phone and some - few- seem to do nothing. Being a member of that last group, I can't help but wonder: Are idle moments an occasion under extinction? Are they just "out of fashion" or do they really correspond to a change in habits?

The is no doubt that we live in a world full of stimuli. In the typical everyday life, at any given moment of the day, a great number of things are competing, intentionally or unintentionally, for our attention. The kettle whistling sound, the phone ringtone, the flashing lights on ambulances/ police vehicles/ etc., posters and billboards, traffic lights, the music from the media player of the guy next to us, the chat of the couple waiting at the bus stop (if it survives the urban background noise), the notifications that pop up every so often on the lower right side of a windows desktop, the voice of the boss(/wife), etc. Could it be that people have forgotten what "peace and quiet" once used to mean?

To be fair, what I'm describing might be a big-city only epidemic. When one leaves the urban environment and goes to the countryside things, often, feel slower. That always "doing something" state seems to be highly addictive (well, you could also call it "habit", I guess).

I vividly remember, about 2 years ago, going for a meeting to the north, together with colleagues; it had taken us quite a while to get used to the pace of life there. Initially, I felt things where dragging for ages; ordering and having a coffee served was a descent, frustrating, 10-15' case... It took considerable self-discipline and patience to keep my cool ! :-)

It seems to me that we, people, are fully capable of creating entirely artificial environments, based on "I'm doing something" and of "I'm still doing something" individuals. Having said that, our brain is good at establishing a background of stimuli, regardless of density of those stimuli. But, does this come with a cost? And, if yes, is that cost worth it?

The density of stimuli is associated with the rate of development of babies and children. The mental activity throughout one's life has also been associated with people's (mental) health at the later stages of their lives. So does this mean that the busier generations will live a better (or longer) life? Are those generations more efficient thinkers? Or is there a fine line, beyond which the information overload can have a negative impact on people?

In nature, being idle is the "energy-saving mode" of living organisms, thus extremely important for the balance between organisms. But since "energy" may not be too important in some parts of the western world, I wonder, do brief idle periods carry any positive content or not? Has "doing nothing" (in the awake state), perhaps, the potential to help creative thinking and creativity, to allow people to mentally explore other alternatives or to come up with fresh ideas? Could it have any impact to the way that people interact with each other?

Too many questions for which, really, I don't know the answer.... The only thing I can say is, simply, that from time to time I do enjoy doing nothing for a while :-)

(Photo: "Autumn at Idle Creek", by J. Heffner, / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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