June 9, 2013

'Doing nothing' has its value

I was in Connecticut last weekend visiting my father as I do every other weekend. While I was there, a college friend living in the United Kingdom called to ask when I might be coming over for a visit. I told him that, in light of my schedule, I didn’t foresee a vacation this summer.

My comment about being busy prompted a response from my friend’s wife, Amanda, who is a behavioral neuroscientist; she studies the biological reasons for human behavior. One of her favorite pastimes is commenting on the biological and non-biological reasons for my behavior. She seems to derive endless enjoyment from it.

Amanda and I had a (long) discussion about a paper she is writing and will present at a conference in the autumn. She told me she got the idea for the paper after re-reading a quotation from her favorite theologian, Winnie the Pooh, who said, “Don’t underestimate the value of doing nothing.”

Her thesis is that it’s common in today’s plugged-in, online, connected to everyone and everything 24/7 world to be “busy.” The common belief is that a person is most productive when they’re “working on something,” trying to solve one complex problem or another. The assumption is that a person accomplishes more when they’re consciously focused on a problem or an issue.

But, she asked, “When does productivity end and ‘busyness’ begin?”

According to Amanda, our brain doesn’t always work best when it’s intensely focused and not allowed to rest. Our brain functions best, and we are our most creative, when the brain has a balance of “active” time and “relaxation” time. Unfortunately, in our culture, we see doing nothing as a waste of time or laziness. She went on to explain the paradox that “doing nothing” is difficult. We become so pre-occupied that our conscious awareness is constantly focusing on those “preoccupations,” thereby preventing us from relaxing and “doing nothing.”

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