Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Do We Need More Time to Think or is it Sound Bites All the Way?

I'd like to look at some rather scary statistics.  Current research indicates that our attention spans are shortening. In the year 2000, the average attention span was 12 seconds, in 2012 that average had shrunk to 8 seconds. The attention span of a goldfish is 9 seconds.  Of course, we all know statistics can be manipulated, even so, I believe there is a trend. 

Let's look, first of all, to the barriers that inhibit our thinking. We are constantly busy and distracted. The trouble may be that we multitask even when we don't know we're multitasking. We talk socially or about business on the telephone, probably with the radio or tv banging away in the background. 

We work on the computer and have to remember to be mindful of the dinner vegetables bubbling away on the stove. Our senses are constantly bombarded with sensations and our brains have to block the overflow. It takes energy for our brains to resist all this superfluous stimuli, and this negativity can simply drain us.

We need to resist this overload and free ourselves to allow for some brain space. We can meditate, either alone or with help from a teacher or likeminded friends, or we can help ourselves by practising some repetitive motion, like swimming or running.

Or as my daughter-in-law points out, "Stare out the window to give your brain the space so your thoughts can float into your head."  I don't think my daughter-in-law, with her busy lifestyle, ever had the time to read the great Empiricist philosopher, John Locke, but her words echo his own conclusions about thinking as he plays with words such as the French reverie, for when words float into our minds or our understanding.  “…our language has scarce a name for it,” he says.

The thing is that thinking is not just a single action. It is, rather, a procedure, a process, encompassing a number of states of consciousness. In other words, there are degrees and variations.

In his great work, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, John Locke’s short chapter “Of the Modes of Thinking” examines aspects of thinking and considers how they are related to the human soul.

Locke explains how, from our perception, which he rightly regards as an aspect of thinking, we receive distinct ideas.  I love Locke's writing, although he can sometimes be a little bit long-winded, so I have tried to shorten the following statement without losing meaning:   “Thus, the perception which actually accompanies… any impression on the body made by an external object… furnishes the mind with a distinct idea which we call sensation.”  What Locke is actually describing is the “entrance of an idea into the understanding by the senses.”
The same idea, recurring, is remembrance. Locke differentiates between recollection and contemplation by this distinction:  “…if it be sought after by the mind… and brought again in view, it is recollection; if it is held there long under attentive consideration, it is contemplation.”
Most of us, I am sure, remember and recollect, but how often do we contemplate, and by doing so, allow ourselves to examine our lives, our minds and our world in full colour.
Dreaming, Locke says,  “… is the having of ideas in the mind, not suggested by any external objects…and whether that which we call ecstasy be not dreaming with the eyes open, I leave to be examined.”
Further, Locke says, an idea gains our attention when the mind chooses to fix on and consider it. This concept leads to intention or study.
Locke mentions other aspects of thinking, such as reasoning, judging, volition (in the sense of the act of exercising the will) and knowledge, which he claims are “…some of the most considerable operations of the mind and modes of thinking.”  
In the 17th century, as in the time of the ancients, great men and women were fully aware of the practical and spiritual validity of allowing ourselves time to think, with all the vigour of our being. Maybe this is something we are beginning to lose sight of. We are skipping several stages of the thinking process.


In the world today, many people seem primed just to pass exams and gain qualifications. Not always, but in some cases, it seems by fair means or foul.  I believe that being unwilling to apply oneself to thinking carefully and reflectively can actually result in a severe lack of confidence, of self-knowledge and even lead to acts of dishonesty. For example:

Not too long ago, a young woman I know was explaining how she had smuggled some data into the examination room to help her with her paper. She was not embarrassed or ashamed, just relieved she wasn't caught. I responded that this was not just cheating the system, but that, most of all, she was cheating herself by depriving herself of the opportunity to learn and grow. She was not convinced and evidently thought I was a dinosaur. Maybe she was right.

I have found my online articles stolen and on sites that sell them to undergraduates for their coursework, and have been involved in long, arduous disputes to get the webmaster or host to take them down.  These rogue sites make far more money out of my work than I do.

The man who ran a private tuition agency I once worked for in London, had his degree printed in big bold letters on his invoices. One day he confessed to me that it was fake. He'd purchased his "degree" online and it came with an impressive looking certificate from a North American university. He urged me to do the same, after all, it was only a couple of thousand pounds. You just had to say you'd read a few books. But, quite apart from the deceit, I wouldn't want to deprive myself of the sheer joy of learning a few new thinking strategies and a whole chunk of exciting new knowledge.

Is it entirely the fault of these cheats that they are cheating?  I ask that because I believe they are, in part, influenced by our "success at any cost" society.  If everybody does it, then the one who plays fair is going to feel at a disadvantage.  So, are we creating a world where people are not encouraged to think deeply and analytically for themselves and take pride in their own development? People who don't have the time for self-development and the willingness to achieve an honest qualification, and who, instead, need other people to do their thinking for them?

A great deal of popular material today has to be in soundbites, rather than in depth.  In a way, that meets the criteria of its authors, to get people to read and assimilate short, accessible chunks of data. Many people complain about texts and tweets in the same way, but I am not including these in my criticism. I don't think that would be fair, as they are a specific method of communication and used in an entirely different context. Anyway, it's fun working out all the acronyms!  I am frequently LMAO. If you don't know, work it out!

But - in the end, thinking into soundbites doesn't go.

A third problem to the clarity of our thinking is that we tend to think in binary opposites. This is a black and white view of the world and it's is not a helpful way to pursue a solution or fix an argument. For example:

We might say that all accidents are preventable, when clearly we know they are not.  But that doesn't mean that the only other option is fatalism.  If a person doesn't believe in God, does that mean they believe in the devil, or in evil?  If a person doesn't support gay marriage, does that make them homophobic? If a person says they love women's humour, does that mean they dislike male-focussed humour?

Life isn't black and white, and there are many other way to find solutions to its dilemmas besides using language in binary opposites, which is confrontational and not conducive to careful thought.

The question being asked is, "We need time to think."  It's not always easy when there are so many other calls on our time, or people demanding our attention. When you get home from a busy day, I guess a meal out and some time socialising around the pub is probably more attractive than practising your thinking skills.  I know for me this can sometimes be the case and I'm no goody-two-shoes. I love a large glass of wine and a few good jokes in agreeable company and if I was still working full time, I wouldn't be rushing home to mull over Hume's dialogues or the thoughts of Chairman Mao.

However, there are a few other strategies besides meditation and repetitive sport to aid thinking, such as writing. Even you are not a writer, writing is a great thing to do because of the thinking that happens while you are writing. The author, Joan Didion, said, "I don't know what I think until I write it down." Reading a book can have a similar beneficial effect and can be time well spent.

You can structure your time so you can use it well. While performing mindless activities, throw away the headphones and let your mind wander where it will. Some years ago, as the head ironing operative in the family, I wrote stories in my head while pressing piles of white shirts.  Going on a long journey doesn't faze me as it presents me with good opportunities both to think or to daydream.

We also need to develop our listening skills, in this way we help others to develop their own thinking. This is not patronising, as it works both ways. If you listen to me, I start to hone my thinking and I become aware of what I am saying, and this gives me confidence that my thoughts have some value and are worth sharing.

But there is another kind of thinking that we ignore at our peril, and that's the thinking that informs our everyday life. If we don't dream our dreams, pin them down in recollection and remembrance, then contemplate or reflect on what is in our minds and hearts, how will we ever be sure we are living our lives in the best possible way for the best possible outcome, both socially, practically and spiritually?

Perhaps I'll give the last word to the mostly very rational Rene Descartes. I think, therefore I am. Yes indeed. There is no other way to become our most mindful and fully-realised selves.

1 comment:

Frank Parker said...

Brilliant post, Janet. Thank you.