Americans have a well-known obsession with productivity. In recent research I am involved in we found that personal productivity is the highest aspiration in the use of work technologies. But perhaps this focus is not necessarily the best for us with regard to other aspects of life and work like well-being and creativity.
I’ve been reviewing Andrew Smart’s Autopilot: The Art & Science of Doing Nothing, in which he makes a strong case for spending more time idle. As he puts it,
Psychological research has shown that humans, especially American humans, tend to dread idleness. However, this research also shows that if people do not have a justification for being busy, on average they would rather be idle. Our contradictory fear of being idle, together with our preference for sloth, may be a vestige from our evolutionary history. For most of our evolution, conserving energy was our number one priority because simply getting enough to eat was a monumental physical challenge. Today, survival does not require much (if any) physical exertion, so we have invented all kinds of futile busyness. Given the slightest or even a specious reason to do something, people will become busy. People with too much time on their hands tend to become unhappy or bored. Yet as we will see in this book, being idle may be the only real path toward self-knowledge. What comes into your consciousness when you are idle can often be reports from the depths of your unconscious self _and this information may not always be pleasant. Nonetheless, your brain is liker bringing it to your attention for a good reason. Through idleness, great ideas buried in your unconsciousness have the chance to enter your awareness.
I know that my most creative moments generally come in a state of half-sleep, using in the early morning or following an afternoon nap. And there is significant evidence that intentionally deciding to delay making a decision, and letting it simmer on the back burner while we do other things — like sleep, or other work — can lead to better decisions (see Being distracted — multitasking — can lead to better decisions).
Smart cites the work of Marcus Raichle, who discovered the ‘resting-state network’ of the human brain in 2001. This is the network that is active when we aren’t focused on anything in particular:
Raichle noticed that when his subjects were lying in an MRI scanner and doing the demanding cognitive tasks of his experiments, there were brain areas whose activity actually decreased. This was surprising, because it was previously suspected that during cognitive tasks brain activity should only increase, relative to another task or to a “flat baseline.” This led Raichle to study what the brain was doing in between his experimental tasks. What he discovered was a specific network that increased activity when subjects seemed to disengage from the outside world. When you have to perform some tedious task in an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) experiment such as to memorize a list of words, certain areas of your brain become more active and other areas become less active. This does not seem peculiar. However, if you are just lying in the scanner with your eyes closed or staring up at the screen, brain activity does not decrease. The area of activity merely switches places. The area that deactivates during tasks becomes more active during rest. This is the resting-state network.
Most parts of the brain are dedicated to certain sorts of cognition, and are excited by singing, or reading, or doing math. But it appears that the ‘aha!’ moments of insight and creativity occur most frequently when the RSN is active: that is, when we aren’t trying to be creative, but we are letting our minds wander where the autopilot wants to take us.
Note the brain isn’t shutting down in RSN time: it is active. Again, Smart says,
Rather, the brain is perpetually and spontaneously active. It is maintaining, interpreting, responding, and predicting.
The brain use more energy when we are on autopilot than when we are doing math, for example.
What is increasingly clear is that our intuitive — or culturally-imposed — understanding of the human mind is woefully wrong. We naturally would imagine that concentrating hard on a math problem should take more energy, but it turns out that spacing out is more of an energy hog.
Looked at from a physics perspective, more energy should lead to more of something else, and it seems that all that energy makes the brain temporarily more organized: different brain centers are communicating, exchanging information, and erecting a dialogue about our self and the world.
I’ll leave out Smart’s description of the various centers and what they add to the soup that is being made as we daydream, but as Smart says,
In a nutshell, when you are being lazy, a huge and widespread network in your brain forms and starts sending information back and forth between these regions. The butterflies only come out to play when all is still and quiet. Any sudden movements and they will scatter.
And when we are working on a spreadsheet, checking our task list, or even sitting in a brainstorming meeting, that network is asleep.
Those with Alzheimer’s disease or schizophrenia appear to lack well-modulated autopilots, and that explains the nature of their impediments.
So it’s time to move past the stigma attached to laziness, to wool-gathering and staring out the window. To reclaim what makes us unique we need to recapture the daydreams of childhood, and dedicate time to actively turning our thoughts away from the affairs of the day.
This flies in the face of what has become the orthodoxy of busyness, but we need to accept the heterodox paradox: to be deeply productive these days rest squarely on creativity, not brute focus. So, take that walk, take that nap, turn on the autopilot.
This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet. I’ve been compensated to contribute to this program, but the opinions expressed in this post are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.
So how could you share the experience of Facebook as it is today with someone who has never used it? A screen shot of the social network does not convey how it actually works. You could use screen-recording software to follow your every movement on the site, but like the home movies of old, that can be tedious to view.
What makes the Internet special is the ability to delve into the details or follow odd little side roads. On Facebook, that might mean a detour to see the wedding photos of a long-lost friend, or read a heartfelt essay on the death of a parent, or follow the public conversations on topics like the Ebola virus.
Right now, there’s no way to preserve that kind of complex, immersive experience. But Rhizome, a New York nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting and conserving digital artwork, is trying to build a new kind of data recorder to do just that.
Rhizome has already developed a rough prototype of a tool that records all the content you experience on a website as you click around, then uses that information to create a simulation of the website that you or someone else can explore again however you want.
This week, the organization, which is affiliated with the New Museum, plans to publicly demonstrate the technology, which it calls Colloq. It has recorded the Instagram portion of a performance art project by the artist Amalia Ulman, who assumed four different stereotypical female roles over the course of several months and posted material on Instagram and Facebook under those identities.
As you can see from this sneak peek, the simulation is far better than any screen shot, allowing a user to click on individual photos and see the likes and comments.
This is a new take on the Wayback Machine, which was really organized around tree-formed websites. But social apps are much more complex, and they have to be based on capturing more content and the scaffolding that holds it together.
Betterworks raises $15.5M for quantified work platform http://t.co/1wwN9b79Cn Building alignment and engagement: quantified work at scale— Stowe Boyd (@stoweboyd) October 19, 2014
There’s still a question about why China didn’t invent that, which was invented in the West. Because of that one invention, the West suddenly had a method for inventing new things and finding new things that was so superior that it just blew past all the great inventions of China and invented so many more things because of the power of this one invention. And that invention—the scientific method—is not a single thing. It’s actually a process with many ingredients, and the scientific method itself has actually been changing. In the very beginning it was very simple, a couple of processes like a controlled experiment, having a control, being able to repeat things, having to have a proof. We tend to think of the scientific method as sort of a whole—as fixed in time with a certain character. But lots of things that we assume or we now associate with the scientific method were only invented recently, some of them only as recently as 50 years ago—things like a double blind experiment or the invention of the placebo or random sampling were all incredibly recent additions to the scientific method. In 50 years from now the scientific method will have changed more than it has in the past 400 years just as everything else has.
So the scientific method is still changing over time. It’s an invention that we’re still evolving and refining. It’s a technology. It’s a process technology, but it’s probably the most important process and technology that we have, but that is still undergoing evolution refinement and advancement and we are adding new things to this invention. We’re adding things like a triple blind experiment or multiple authors or quantified self where you have experiment of N equals one. We’re doing things like saving negative results and transmitting those. There’s many, many things happening with the scientific method itself—as a technology—that we’re also improving over time, and that will affect all the other technologies that we make.
I gave a presentation earlier this week during a Bitrix24 webinar. Check it out here, at about 33 minutes into the presentation.
The talk was about the shift in social scale going on in the ‘social collaboration’ space. Here’s the slides as eye candy.
Karen Landis, Killer Apps In The Gigabit Age
Paul Raven, The role of utopian narratives in urban futurism
Robots can fly aircrafts nearly as good as real pilots
From Popular Science:
Most drones are actually human-piloted, with the controls elsewhere and the pilot steering remotely. In this video, the pilot is itself a humanoid robot, learning how to fly an airplane in a flight simulator. With a panel of controls in its mechanical fingers, the PIBOT uses visual information, presented on a computer monitor, to inform its flying. Right now, the concept is limited to piloting simulators, but the researchers hope to have PIBOT actually steer a plane some day.