It has become a habit during our summer vacation to read the novels short-listed for Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. Unusually this year, we were not only unanimous in our choice of the best novel but we also agreed with the judges and selected the ‘The Power‘ by Naomi Alderman. In another of the books, Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien, a Chinese composer called Sparrow thinks ‘about the quality of sunshine, that is, how daylight wipes away the stars and planets, making them invisible to human eyes, might daylight be a form of blindness? Could it be that sound was also be a form of deafness? If so, what was silence?’. I felt some resonance between these thoughts and John Hull’s writings on blindness and my earlier blog posting on ‘Listening with your eyes shut‘ [on May 31st, 2017]. In our everyday life, we are bombarded with sounds from people living around us, from traffic and from devices in our homes and places of work. We rarely experience silence; however, when we do, perhaps on holiday staying in a remote rural location, then a whole new set of sounds becomes apparent: waves breaking on the shore in the distance, the field mouse rooting around under the floorboards, or the noises of cattle enjoying the lush grass in the field next door. Okay, so you have to be in the right place to hear these sounds of nature but you also need silence otherwise you are deaf to them, as Sparrow suggests.
The same is true for knowledge and understanding because our minds have finite capacity [see my post entitled ‘Silence is golden‘ on January 14th, 2014]. When you are bombarded with information and data it is easy to become overwhelmed and unable to structure the information in way that makes it useful or meaningful. In our connected society, information has become like white noise, or daylight obscuring the stars and planets. Information is blinding us to knowledge and understanding. We need to aggressively filter the information flow in order to gain insight and knowledge. We should switch off the digital devices, which bombard us with information constantly, to leave our minds free for conceptual and creative thinking because that’s one of the few tasks in which we can outperform the smartest machine [see my post entitled ‘Smart machines‘ on February 26th, 2014].
Most of us have returned from vacation by now but I wonder how refreshed you are feeling. Was you vacation like the character in the cartoon published recently in the New York Times (INYT Friday, August 8th, 2014), i.e. still connected to the grid? Or did you follow my advice in the posts entitled ‘Gadget stress‘ (April 9th, 2014) and ‘Reading offline‘ (March 19th, 2014) by engrossing yourself in reading a few good books with all gadgets switched off. I know some of my colleagues did not because I have received automatic vacation replies to my emails followed by detailed email responses a few hours later or even a minute or two later in one case, often including a reminder that they are on vacation! David Levitin writing in the NYT (on August 9th, 2014) asserts that a ‘vacation isn’t a luxury’ and I agree with him. We went to an undisclosed location with no telephone, no internet and no mobile phone signal and even then we thought that two weeks was not long enough!
David Levitin goes on to say that we should not skimp on daydreaming. He describes how our brains have two modes of operation: central executive mode and mind-wandering mode. We tend to operate in one mode or the other and the switching between them is controlled by the insula, which is located in our brain about 25mm below the top surface of your skull. Tasks requiring focussed attention, such as learning and problem-solving are performed in central executive mode while day-dreaming and surfing from one idea to another is undertaking in mind-wandering mode. Scientists believe that switching too frequently between the modes makes you feel tired. Central executive mode functions better without distractions and in sustained periods spent on single tasks as recommended in my post entitled ‘Silence is golden‘ [January 14, 2014]. Creativity tends arise from mind-wandering, which can be stimulated by listening to music or taking a walk in nature [see my post entitled ‘The Charismatic Engineer‘ on June 4th, 2014], and allowing ideas to shuffle into perspective or the great breakthrough to emerge, apparently miraculously.
So the recipe for intellectual productivity and creativity seems to be to focus on tasks for sustained periods of times, Levitin suggests 30 to 50 minutes with email closed and phones muted. Take short breaks and go for a stroll, eight minutes is sufficient according Stanford researchers, Marily Oppezzo and Dan Schwartz. Set aside specific time to deal with email each day and also time for mind-wandering.
Regular readers of this blog will know that I spent a relaxing day painting railings a few weeks ago [see post entitled ‘Engineering archaeology‘ on July 23rd, 2014]. A day or so later, I went out with my pail of whitewash to paint the walls of the light-well that the railings protect. ‘The summer world was bright and fresh, and brimming with life’ but unlike Tom Sawyer I was not looking for Jim to do my white-washing for me. I was looking forward to another therapeutic session painting the walls at the front of our house. It was an interesting standing in the light-well facing the wall, un-noticed by most passers-by. We live on a city street close to tourist attractions and there is a constant stream of coaches and taxis stopping to drop-off and pick-up tourists. I have written about the noise insulation in our house before [see Noise Transfer on April 13th, 2013] which means that we don’t notice the constant growl of diesel engines outside but I did while I was painting. However, there were other sounds in the city. The voices of pedestrians deep in conversation as they passed by on the pavement just above my head. I recognised Chinese, French, Italian and English but there were many different languages that I didn’t recognise. There were young children asking parents questions as they walked down the street. For a while I could hear cathedral bells. When there was a pause in the traffic then it was possible to hear the cooing of pigeons, a neighbour’s radio or television and an ever-present idling diesel engine which I discovered was an ice-cream van dispensing a constant trickle of black soot and an occasional ice-cream. It is curious that as a society we tolerant high levels of noise pollution at tourist attractions, especially ones that are meant to be places of calm and contemplation. Most tourists are, almost by definition, on holiday seeking relaxation and a lowering of stress levels – how much more pleasant would it be to glide to your destination in a silent electric coach or taxi?
We have the technology to provide such a service [see Are electric cars back? on May 28th, 2014]. Yes, it requires some investment by tour operators and taxi firms in hybrid or electric vehicles and by the city council in re-charging facilities. Induction charging stations at tourist attractions would allow vehicles to recharge while dropping off and picking up passengers. The technology is available and has been used by buses in Genoa and Turin for more than a decade. So a little bit a regulatory pressure and investment from city councils acting together could create a calmer, quieter and cleaner environment for everyone.
Can we look forward to solar-powered ice-cream vans?
Sources: Thank you to Richard for reminding me about Tom Sawyer.
The digital age has led to us being overwhelmed with sources of information and entertainment. It is unfashionable to suggest that it might be unproductive to take advantage of multiple data streams to interact with the virtual world, listen to your favourite music and study simultaneously.
However in 1973, Kahneman proposed that the amount of attention that an individual can deploy at any time is limited. It is known as the ‘capacity model of attention’ and is based on the assumptions that attention can be freely allocated to activities based on their arousal level and that your total attention is finite. The model has been used to explain research findings on the effect of background television on cognitive performance. While recent research has demonstrated that students read and study better in silence; though if they must listen to music then certain types are better than others, for instance light classical music has a less deleterious effect than hip hop music – maybe because it has a lower arousal level.
So multi-tasking is not conducive to high quality output or efficient working. Many people have arrived at this conclusion by the time they graduate from University or have spent a few years in a mentally demanding job. However, it is an uphill task to convince young people that they would perform better and finish tasks faster without the distractions made readily available by the digital age.
Or that is safer not to cross the road while listening to music and texting your friends!
For many references to the research literature see Chou, P. M-T., Attention drainage effect: how background music effects concentration in Taiwanese college students, Journal of Scholarship of Teaching & Learning, 10(1):36-46, 2010. http://josotl.indiana.edu/issue/view/158
Kahneman, D., Attention and effect, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1973.