“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone“- Blaise Pascal, 1654.
When we have nothing to do, no tasks to perform, just sitting quietly, our brains enter “default mode”. You would think that would be relaxing, but for many of us it is not. That’s when we start ruminating, a word which comes from “ruminants”, or animals like cows that chew their cud. Only our “cud” is mental stuff we bring up to chew on. And this is often not relaxing.
The existence of the default mode was accidentally discovered by neuroscientists, who were surprised by it. Dr. Marcus Raichle and colleagues at Washington University in St. Louis were measuring how much energy the brain was using when performing mental tasks. They compared this to energy use when “doing nothing”, and surprisingly found that the brain often used more energy when supposedly resting quietly. Looking further, they found it was anything but quiet when we’re supposedly “chilling out”. Neurons are firing away in a variety of areas of the brain that have been collectively dubbed the “default mode network” , p 149.
This is what makes us antsy, leading to the Pascal quote. Although we need to update it for modern times: you have to be able to sit quietly in a room, without your smartphone. The difficulty most people have doing this was shown in the study described here. A group of adult subjects were asked to sit quietly in a chair. No one to talk to, sleeping not allowed, nothing to read, no “tech” (watches, smartphones, tv, ipod, etc), no music. The only thing available to them was a button that would give them an unpleasant electric shock. They were asked to try the button out at the beginning, and most said they would pay money to not be shocked like that again. But sitting their quietly with their thoughts, for 12 minutes, was so difficult for them that a significant number of them administered the shock to themselves at least once.
Fortunately, there are remedies for this. The first is to work on addiction to smartphones and other screens. I think they have many good uses like email, texting, wayfinding, etc., and many frivolous uses like posting selfies and hoping to get likes. It helps to cut down on the amount of time spent on the latter, as well as cutting down on video games and tv watching or media streaming.
The classic remedies are meditation and mindfulness. Both of these work directly on calming the default mode. Some advanced Tibetan Buddhist monks, who practice both were studied and showed a remarkable difference in how calm their minds get when not engaged in a task, compared to control groups . We cannot perhaps expect to reach this level since they’ve been practicing for decades, but we can improve on where we are now. I have noticed just in the few months spent on my “Covid19 retreat” that my mind seems to be noticeably quieter when I’m not doing a task. I’m less prone to impatience and less easily bored. It’s a nice feeling.
- Goleman, D, and Davidson, R, Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body, Penguin, 2017.