Random finds (2018, week 44) — On the (lost) art of concentration, the power of desert silence, and an inquiry into the art of living
I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.” — Michel de Montaigne
A new Random finds, after a 2-month break; a period in which I not only read a lot of books but also reorientated my career.
This week: How we have lost the ability to concentrate; the power of desert silence; philosophy as an “inquiry into the art of living”; why habits get in the way of change; Isaiah Berlin on the meaning of ‘freedom’; the shabby treatment of introverts; upgrading your mind; and the stunningly beautiful Rietveld Schröder House.
The (lost) art of concentration
“It is difficult to imagine life before our personal and professional worlds were so dominated and ‘switched on’ via smartphones and the other devices that make us accessible and, crucially, so easily distractible and interruptible every second of the day. This constant fragmentation of our time and concentration has become the new normal, to which we have adapted with ease, but there is a downside: more and more experts are telling us that these interruptions and distractions have eroded our ability to concentrate,” writes Harriet Griffey, the author of The Art Of Concentration, in The lost art of concentration: being distracted in a digital world.
This knowledge isn’t new, though. Research carried out by Dr Glenn Wilson at London’s Institute of Psychiatry in 2005 found that constant interruptions can have the same effect as the loss of a night’s sleep.
Nicholas Carr picked up on this again in an article in the Atlantic, Is Google Making Us Stupid? in which he explores what the Internet is doing to our brains (2008), before going on to publish his book The Shallows two years later.
“Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory,” Carr wrote. “My mind isn’t going — so far as I can tell — but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.”
But Carr also wonders whether he might be “a worrywart.” Adding, “Just as there’s a tendency to glorify technological progress, there’s a countertendency to expect the worst of every new tool or machine. In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates bemoaned the development of writing. He feared that, as people came to rely on the written word as a substitute for the knowledge they used to carry inside their heads, they would, in the words of one of the dialogue’s characters, ‘cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful.’ And because they would be able to ‘receive a quantity of information without proper instruction,’ they would ‘be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant.’ They would be ‘filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom.’ Socrates wasn’t wrong — the new technology did often have the effects he feared — but he was shortsighted. He could not have have foreseen the many ways that writing and reading would serve to spread information, spur fresh ideas, and expand human knowledge (if not wisdom).”
Back to Harriet Griffey…
“With our heavy use of digital media, it could be said that we have taken multitasking to new heights, but we’re not actually multitasking; rather, we are switching rapidly between different activities. Adrenaline and cortisol are designed to support us through bursts of intense activity, but in the long term cortisol can knock out the feel-good hormones serotonin and dopamine in the brain, which help us feel calm and happy, affecting our sleep and heart rate and making us feel jittery,” she writes.
“It would seem then that this physiological adaptation, fostered by our behaviour, is a predominant reason for the poor concentration so many people report. The fact that we are the cause of this is, paradoxically, good news since it hands back to us the potential to change our behaviour and reclaim the brain function and cognitive health that’s been disrupted by our digitally enhanced lives. And this may even be more important than just improving our levels of concentration. Constant, high levels of circulating stress hormones have an inflammatory and detrimental affect on brain cells, suggests the psychiatrist Edward Bullmore, who has written about the link between inflammation and depression in his latest book, The Inflamed Mind. Depression, along with anxiety, is a known factor in knocking out concentration.
Put simply, better concentration makes life easier and less stressful and we will be more productive. To make this change means reflecting on what we are doing to sabotage personal concentration, and then implementing steps towards behavioural change that will improve our chances of concentrating better. This means deliberately reducing distractions and being more self-disciplined about our use of social media, which are increasingly urgent for the sake of our cognitive and mental health.”
“It takes about three weeks for a repeating behaviour to form a habit, says Jeremy Dean, a psychologist and the author of Making Habits, Breaking Habits. Getting into a new habit will not happen overnight and adaptation can be incremental. Start by switching off smartphone alerts, or taking social media apps off your phone, then switching off the device for increasingly long periods. Practise concentration by finding things to do that specifically engage you for a period of time to the exclusion of everything else. What is noticeable is that you cannot just go from a state of distraction to one of concentration, in the same way that most of us cannot fall asleep the minute our head hits the pillow. It takes a bit of time and, with practice, becomes easier to accomplish.”
In his recent book Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones, James Clear describes what the process of changing habits really looks like (page 20):
“Imagine that you have an ice cube sitting on the table in front of you. The room is cold and you can see your breath. It is currently twenty-five degrees. Ever so slowly, the room begins to heat up.
The ice cube is still sitting on the table in front of you.
Still, nothing has happened.
Then, thirty-two degrees. The ice begins to melt. A one-degree shift, seemingly no different from the temperature increases before it, has unlocked a huge change.
Breakthrough moments are often the result of many previous actions, which build up the potential required to unleash a major change. This pattern shows up everywhere. Cancer spends 80 percent of its life undetectable, then takes over the body in months. Bamboo can barely be seen for the first five years as it builds extensive root systems underground before exploding ninety feet into the air within six weeks. Similarly, habits often appear to make no difference until you cross a critical threshold and unlock a new level of performance. In the early and middle stages of any quest, there is often a Valley of Disappointment. You expect to make progress in a linear fashion and it’s frustrating how ineffective changes can seem during the first days, weeks, and even months. It doesn’t feel like you are going anywhere. It’s a hallmark of any compounding process: the most powerful outcomes are delayed.”
The power of desert silence
“City life is a constant, maddening hum. Only in a place like the Sahara can we hear the nothingness that revives,” writes Robert Twigger, a poet, writer (in his most recent book, Micromastery, he shows how “the true path to success and achievement lies in the pursuit of perfecting lots and lots of small things — for a big payoff”) and explorer, in Desert silence.
“By the twisted, paradoxical nature of things, a 4x4 with a throbbing engine — the 4.2 litre non-turbo diesel in a Nissan Patrol or Toyota Landcruiser — is the best way to experience the single most entrancing characteristic of the desert, the one that sucks you in and leads you to all the others you had only glimpsed or imagined before: that is, the silence. The rattly, combustion-wheezing, air-filling noise of the car stops with a shudder and a grunt, and the silence rushes in to fill the vacuum. You can feel it sucking away from the ear not air but something finer, some granular constituent of the ether, maybe the secret ingredient of dark matter … Whatever it is, it gets sucked away, leaving your hearing more acute but with less to listen to. There is the gentle click of the bonnet metal contracting. The slamming of the door by the last person getting out. The sound of bare feet squashing out sand in a few exploratory steps. And then, nothing.
If you walk (and after the engine stops, there is little fun in staying in the car), you find that answers appear to all the forlorn questions you had long ago given up expecting an answer to. The answer comes! But it might not be in words. That’s the craziest thing: to ask a question in words and receive a satisfactory answer that cannot be converted back into words without losing the essential ingredient.”
“As you get older you value silence more. Your nerves get jangled more easily. Loud music becomes less and less attractive. Instead of wanting to rev up, you seek ways to calm down. But I suspect the search for real silence goes deeper than just a desire to relax. It’s no accident that many religious orders have vows of silence. Only in silence can the soul unburden itself and then listen out for subtler signs, information from the unknown inner regions.
How much silence does a person need? You can get greedy for it, addicted to it. I know people who spend half their time in the desert and the other half working out how to get back to it. They are running away from life, some say; they are certainly running away from noise. […]
You know you’re cured when you relish the sound of loud pop music again. Crowded clubs hold no fear; the pumping bass seems like a familiar friend, not a message from the Antichrist. You can ‘take it’. Modern life is ‘OK’. You’ve detoxed and the result is that you seem more youthful. Young people haven’t filled themselves up with noise (yet), so they actively seek it out. For those who have had too much, then emptied it out, the glad return to a noisy world is invigorating. How long does the immunity last? About two weeks, if you’re lucky.”
An inquiry into the art of living
Letters to a Young Philosopher by the Iranian-Canadian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo, is one of the many books I read during my 2-month break from writing. At the heart of this book is the claim that thinking is indispensable to an existence without mediocrity. Letters to a Young Philosopher contains 16 letters from an elderly philosopher, or “R” as he is referred to in his letters, for whom philosophy is an “inquiry into the art of living.”
In his article for The Wire, entitled In Today’s Times, What Is the Role of a Philosopher?, Sreejith Sugunan, a PhD candidate at the Centre for Political Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, India, writes:
“For R, the ‘default modes’ of thought and action are best represented by the phrase ‘techno-bureaucratic society,’ which incentivises a particular kind of attitude over others, an attitude of conformism and mediocrity. Reading this book, one wonders how come we have replaced mediocrity’s original antonym, ‘excellence,’ with an idea of ‘success,’ despite both the words meaning very different things. R identifies this substitution as a byproduct of our current education system, which he feels has become a means to an end. Education is perceived today as a body of knowledge and skillset that helps us reach a goal, commonly termed success, key ingredients of which are high purchasing power and a penchant for sophisticated consumption.
R stresses on the importance of going back to the idea of education as a training for nurturing the human soul. Such an education should focus on the art of ‘thinking,’ which is not about ‘knowing’ or ‘possessing’ an idea by being hard-headed about it, but to be thoughtful while encountering and responding to the other. Humility in holding opinions forms the core of this education. And it is this decay of education as an ethical enterprise that R laments. R links the current pervasive lack of ‘thinking’ in the modern world to the rise of evil (read violence, hatred and indifference to others’ suffering) in society. Throughout the book, R continues this call for humility and responsibility, but at the same time highlights the necessity of being ‘conscious’ as well as ‘critical.’ This is because meaning or awareness from our life experiences is not found in what we see, read or do, but in the process of thinking and reflection we can bring to these images, words or actions.”
A few passages from Ramin Jahanbegloo’s Letters to a Young Philosopher…
“Along with thinking, excellence is the essential value to a philosopher, whether for creative purposes or simply for living. But excellence can be considered possible only in the context of an education through which excellence is fostered. The Athenians believed that excellence breeds excellence. So striving for excellence for its own sake, for truth, beauty, and goodness in the whole educational process, was considered as the only way to produce it.” (Preface, page xxii)
“We live essentially in an age of calculative and instrumental thinking, and yet technological progress and development goes ahead with an ever increasing tempo of idiotization. There is a great deal of technology all over our world and people talk about it loudly. There is nothing strange about talking loudly of technology, business, and politics. It is through their noise making that they exist and dominate our planet. But as Jawaharlal Nehru says in one of his speeches, ‘Culture is not loud; it is quiet, it is restrained, it is tolerant.’” (On the Decline of Education, page 12–13)
“Philosophy is an art of thinking, not an art of seizing and possessing ideas. So, what does all this mean? Well, it simply means that philosophy begins in wonder, but ends in doubt. Being in doubt is an uncomfortable state of mind, but it is much better than having false certainties or dogmatisms. Bertrand Russel argues that, ‘Dogmatism is the greatest of mental obstacles to human happiness.’ Why? Because dogmatism spreads ignorance and violence.” (On Truth, page 59)
“When we look into the history of human civilizations, we will discover one fundamental fact: those which laid the stress on power and violence have passed away. Those which laid their stress on the development of excellence have survived. If history has any lesson to teach us, it is the following: excellence is the end that we have to set before ourselves.” (On Mediocrity, page 70)
“[…] excellence is not just an ideal; it is a frame of mind. However, excellence, unlike a utopia, is not a systematic and systemic conception of a far better life achieved by human intelligence and will, Utopia is the life of our dreams made flesh. It is an imagined model waiting to be realized. It is the image of a perfect world. But humanity, as imperfect as it is, cannot live in a perfect world. That is why utopian dynamics have always been imposed views. Excellence, on the contrary, does not seek to impose itself upon others. It is a common horizon of exemplarity for all humans.” (On Mediocrity, page 77)
“Our world […] talks about ‘a society of world consumers.’ No wonder why the ideal type of our contemporary society is the ‘tourist’ and not the ‘flâneur.’ Walter Benjamin, a great philosopher who left us early in life, talks about the flâneur in his seminal work The Arcades Project, as a person who is ‘virtuoso of empathy’ because he leads us to a moment at which the past and the present recognize each other. As such, through the art of flânerie the memory of heritage of the past is rescued in order to understand the present. The flâneur walks through the city listening to its pulse, while the tourist travels the city on a special bus and rushes through its streets and museums. The tourist has neither empathy for the spirits who have lived in these spaces, nor a memory of his own visit in different cities. She ends up in a mall where the great consuming orgy of capitalism takes place. Another point, the tourist does not think. She only knows how to take pleasure from her mercantile orgasm.” (On the Art of Making Films, page 135)
And also this …
According to USC psychology professor Wendy Wood, “Habits are triggered without awareness — they are repeated actions that worked in the past in a given context or in a similar experience.” This explains why our habits get in the way of change despite our best intentions.
Her research shows that concentrating on changing unwanted behaviors, and then creating new ones — not focusing on people’s motivation — is the key to making change. Changing the context through which old actions become more difficult and new, desired ones easier and more rewarding, is crucial. This gives people the opportunity to think about what they were doing and changes the habit triggers, which in turn created the opportunity to change behavior.
So, if you want your team to interact more, to share ideas and collaborate, you need to look carefully at the environment — the context — in which they are working. Today’s open-plan office layout, in theory, promotes collaboration and interaction, but, says Wood, “When you go to open-plan offices, you often find people wearing headphones to create their own private space in which to work.” They return to the old habit of keeping to themselves.
“A better way of organizing the office could be to give people their cubicles, their personal space, but also create open areas with coffee and snacks and provide brainstorming technologies, to encourage them to gather and collaborate,” she says. “You give them the reason and space for interaction as well as the space in which to work individually. Make the desired actions easy. Reduce friction in the environment, or barriers that can get in the way.”
“People have challenges in changing behavior because of a misunderstanding about what controls many of our everyday actions,” she says. “Motivation and understanding just aren’t enough on their own to effect change.” Old habits can endure longer than the motivation to try something new, even for the most dedicated of employees.
“As leaders, we need to ask: ‘What do I want people to do on a daily basis in this environment?’” She advises, “Understand the underlying context, and make changes needed so that the desired behavior is easy and rewarding…. Everyone responds to that. When your focus is on the behavior, you can create change that outlasts people’s old habits.”
Further reading: Why some behaviours are really difficult to change and what to do about it: CEOS Theory (CEOS is an acronym for Context, Executive and Operational Systems).
During an interview in 1962 for an ATV program, ‘Freedom of Speech,’ Isaiah Berlin was asked what ‘freedom’ really means. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of his reply (from The Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library).
“As in the case of words which everyone is in favour of, ‘freedom’ has a very great many senses — some of the world’s worst tyrannies have been undertaken in the name of freedom. Nevertheless, I should say that the word probably has two central senses, at any rate in the West. One is the familiar liberal sense in which freedom means that every man has a life to live and should be given the fullest opportunity of doing so, and that there are only two adequate reasons for controlling men. The first is that there are other goods besides freedom, such as, for example, security or peace or culture, or other things which human beings need, which must be given them, apart from the question of whether they want them or not. Secondly, if one man obtains too much, he will deprive other people of their freedom — freedom for the pike means death to the carp — and this is a perfectly adequate reason for curtailing freedom. Still, curtailing freedom isn’t the same as freedom.”
“The second sense of the word is not so much a matter of allowing people to do what they want as the idea that I want to be governed by myself and not pushed around by other people; and this idea leads one to the supposition that to be free means to be self-governing. To be self-governing means that the source of authority must lie in me — or in us, if we’re talking about a community. And if the source of freedom lies in me, then it’s comparatively unimportant how much control there is, provided the control is exercised by myself, or my representatives, or my nation, my people, my tribe, my Church, and so forth. Provided that I am governed by people who are sympathetic to me, or understand my interests, I don’t mind how much of my life is pried into, or whether there is a private province which is divided from the public province; and in some modern States — for example the Soviet Union and other States with totalitarian governments — this second view seems to be taken.
Between these two views, I see no possibility of reconciliation.”
Most companies give little thought to their shabby treatment of introverts, Schumpeter writes in Shhhh!.
“The biggest culprit is the fashion for open-plan offices and so-called ‘group work.’ Companies rightly think that the elixir of growth in a world where computers can do much of the grunt work is innovation. But they wrongly conclude that the best way to encourage creativity is to knock down office walls and to hold incessant meetings.”
Schumpeter believes this is ill-judged for a number of reasons. “It rests on a trite analogy between intellectual and physical barriers between people. It ignores the fact that noise and interruptions make it harder to concentrate. And companies too often forget that whereas extroverts gain energy from other people, introverts need time on their own to recharge.”
Furthermore, “Many companies unconsciously identify leadership skills with extroversion — that is, a willingness to project the ego, press the flesh and prattle on in public. This suggests that Donald Trump is the beau idéal of a great manager. Yet in his book Good to Great, Jim Collins […] suggests that the chief executives who stay longest at the top of their industries tend to be quiet and self-effacing types. They are people who put their companies above their egos and frequently blend into the background,” Schumpeter writes.
“In Quiet, Susan Cain concludes that business has long been dominated by an ‘extrovert ideal,’ thanks to a succession of corporate fashions — whether the 1950s model of the ‘organisation man,’ who thrived by asserting himself in meetings and inside teams, or today’s fad for constant communication. Fortunately, some trends do now push in the other direction. The field of technology, an industry where introverts are common, has made it easier for everyone to communicate at a distance. The aim of enlightened management is not to tilt an extrovert-oriented company rapidly towards the introverts. It is to create a new kind of firm, in which introverts, extroverts and all the in-betweeners are equally likely to flourish. Call it the ambivert organisation.”
“Everyone likes to think they are open-minded. However, even those of us that actively invite different ideas rarely allow them to set up home. There’s plenty of research that suggests our fundamental beliefs don’t generally change much once we’re in our twenties,” writes the British philospher, writer and co-founder of The Philosophers’ Magazine, Julian Baggini in The art of changing your mind.
“I’ve been pondering this a lot recently because I’ve been giving a lot of talks about my new book, How The World Thinks, for which I literally travelled around the globe to find out about its diverse philosophical traditions and how they reflect the cultures they belong to.” The question Baggini has been asked most during his intellectual journey was, what have you changed your mind about?
“I could answer: in too many ways to list. Everything looks different because I have become aware of ways of thinking I knew nothing of and these have in turn cast a new light on familiar ones. But if you ask me whether there is a big issue I have changed my mind about, it would seem that the answer is no. If my mind were a house you might describe it as having undergone a complete make-over without any changes to its basic structure at all.”
In the past I would have found this depressing. It would seem to make the entertaining of different ideas little more than just entertainment. Now, I’m not so down on our apparent resistance to change. In short, I have changed my mind about changing minds.
If that’s right then the goal of continuing enquiry and self-examination is not necessarily to change your fundamental worldview but to work towards the best possible version of it. This is realistic and worthwhile. Each of us engages in philosophy as a personal quest and persons have a necessary stability that makes complete change almost impossible. The kind of change we can ask of ourselves and others is not to change into someone else but to become a better version of the self you are. So if you want to change your mind, don’t think switch it for another: upgrade it.”
Stijn Poelstra has captured the abstract proportions and primary colours of the Rietveld Schröder House in Utrecht, the Netherlands. Deemed a UNESCO World Heritage site, the house was designed in 1924 by the Dutch furniture designer and architect Gerrit Rietveld.
Rietveld was part of the De Stijl art movement pioneered by abstract artists Piet Mondriaan and Theo van Doesburg. Their work was characterised by a rigid geometry of horizontal and vertical lines using a limited palette of black, white, yellow, red and blue.
Truus Schröder-Schräder, a widowed mother of three, wanted a house that could facilitate a more open and un-hierarchical way for a newly independent woman to live as she saw fit. She employed Gerrit Rietveld, who up until then had only designed furniture, for his allegiance with the groundbreaking De Stijl art movement.
Schröder lived in the house for the rest of her life. She even allowed Rietveld to keep a design studio on the ground floor, and when his wife died in 1957 he moved in permanently. Upon Schröder’s death in 1985 the house passed into the care of the Centraal Museum Utrecht, which keeps it open for visitors.
“On the path of my life, in the middle of my life, what do I know about where I have been, and where I might go? Everything in the woods, everything in the ocean, everything in the desert. I can see no shape. I am lost; in the middle of my life I am lost. I cannot find my way through the thicket. I cannot navigate. The path that lies ahead of me is a riddle. But the path that lies behind is indistinct, too; its myriad and confusing turns already half forgotten, the significance of the landmarks encountered along the way misunderstood, misinterpreted.” — Charlotte Higgins in Red Thread — On Mazes & Labyrinths (page 11–12)