I’m a bit of a jerk when I write. I lock myself behind closed doors in my home office. In the summer, I retreat to the most remote reaches of the back yard. The reason? I don’t want to be interrupted with human contact. If I am interrupted, I stare daggers through the interrupter and answer in short, clipped sentences. The house has to be silent. If conditions are less than ideal, my irritation is palpable. My family knows this. The warning signal is “Dad is writing.” This can be roughly translated as “Dad is currently an asshole.” The more I try to be thoughtful, the bigger the ass I am.
I suspect Henry David Thoreau was the same. He went even further than my own backyard exile. He camped out alone for two years in Ralph Waldo Emersen’s cabin on Walden Pond. He said things like,
“I never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude.”
But Thoreau but was also a pretty thoughtful guy, who advised us that,
“As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.”
But, I ask, how can we be thoughtful when we are constantly distracted by information? Our mental lives are full of single footsteps. Even if we intend to cover the same path more than once, there are a thousand beeps, alerts, messages, prompts, pokes and flags that are beckoning us to start down a new path, in a different direction. We probably cover more ground, but I suspect we barely disturb the fallen leaves on the paths we take.
I happen to do all my reading on a tablet. I do this for three reasons; first, I always have my entire library with me and I usually have four books on the go at the same time (currently 1491, Reclaiming Conversation, Flash Boys and 50 Places to Bike Before You Die) – secondly, I like to read before I go to sleep and I don’t need to keep a light on that keeps my wife awake – and thirdly, I like to highlight passages and make notes. But there’s a trade-off I’ve had to make. I don’t read as thoughtfully as I used to. I can’t “escape” with a book anymore. I am often tempted to check email, play a quick game of 2048 or search for something on Google. Maybe the fact that my attention is always divided amongst four books is part of the problem. Or maybe it’s that I’m more attention deficit than I used to be.
There is a big difference between being informed and being thoughtful. And our connected world definitely puts the bias on the importance of information. Being connected is all about being informed. But being thoughtful requires us to remove distraction. It’s the deep paths that Thoreau was referring too. And it requires a very different mindset. Our brains are a single-purpose engine. We can either be informed or be thoughtful. We can’t be both at the same time.
At the University of California, San Francisco, Mattiass Karlsson and Loren Frank found that rats need two very different types of cognitive activity when mastering a maze. First, when they explore a maze, certain parts of their brain are active as they’re being “informed” about their new environment. But they don’t master the maze unless they’re allowed downtime to consolidate the information into new persistent memories. Different parts of the brain are engaged, including the hippocampus. They need time to be thoughtful and create a “deep path.”
In this instance, we’re not all that different than rats. In his research, MIT’s Alex “Sandy” Pentland found that effective teams tend to cycle through two very different phases: First, they explore, gathering new information. Then, just like the thoughtful rats, they engage as a group, taking that information, digesting it and synthesizing it for future execution. Pentland found that while both are necessary, they don’t exist at the same time,
“Exploration and engagement, while both good, don’t easily coexist, because they require that the energy of team members be put to two different uses. Energy is a finite resource.”
Ironically, research is increasingly showing that are previous definitions of cognitive activity may have been off-the mark. We always assumed that “mind-wandering” or “day-dreaming” was a non-productive activity. But we’re finding out that it’s an essential part of being thoughtful. We’re actually not “wandering.” It’s just the brain’s way of synthesizing and consolidating information. We’re wearing deeper paths in the by-ways of our mind. But a constant flow of new information, delivered through digital channels, keeps us from synthesizing the information we already have. Our brain is too busy being informed to be able to make the switch to thoughtfulness. We don’t have enough cognitive energy to do both.
What price might we pay for being “informed” at the expense of being “thoughtful?” It appears that it might be significant. Technology distraction in the classroom could lower grades by close to 20 percent. And you don’t even have to be the one using the device. Just having an open screen in the vicinity might distract you enough to drop your report card from a “B” to a “C.”
Having read this, you now have two choices. You could click off to the next bit of information. Or, you could stare into space for a few minutes and be lost in your thoughts.