Author Archives: Stillman

Hiatus

Hi internet peoples,

I’ve suspended my blogging at Scribblerist while I focus on my fiction writing practice. You can read my weekly posts about Buddhism, culture, and (occasionally) psychology & neuroscience at the One City Blog.

Best,

The Scrib.

Insight, Meditation, and The Usefulness of Strip Clubs

The July 28 issue of the New Yorker (still the finest magazine in the world, despite the ill-advised, un-satirical Obama cover) had an article about the scientific inquiry into insight that got me all hot n’ bothered. In “The Eureka Hunt,” Jonah Lehrer writes about kick-ass neuroscientists who are tracing the hidden pathways of ‘the insight experience,’ and finding that although we can’t feel it, our minds can subconsciously prep an “ah-ha!” moment when confronted with a difficult problem (The article isn’t available online, but you can find an illicit copy here.)

This sets the context nicely:

There is something inherently mysterious about moments of insight … like Archimedes shouting “Eureka” when he saw his bathwater rise, or Isaac Newton watching an apple fall from a tree and then formulating his theory of gravity. Such tales all share a few essential features, which psychologists and neuroscientists use to define “the insight experience.” The first of these is the impasse: before there can be a breakthrough, there has to be a mental block.

Then, the insight arrives, instantaneously, in a flash of connected threads…

This is another key feature of insight: the feeling of certainty that accompanies the idea.

So, a few very smart and hardworking researchers started running simple, phrase-based experiments to tease out exactly how the insight experience works. If you were looking reason #248 to sit your ass down and practice, I give you this, the money quote for meditators:

Kounios [a researcher] tells a story about an expert Zen meditator who took part in one of the C.R.A. insight experiments. At first, the meditator couldn’t solve any of the insight problems. “This Zen guy went through thirty or so of the verbal puzzles and just drew a blank,” Kounios said. “He was used to being very focussed, but you can’t solve these problems if you’re too focussed.” Then, just as he was about to give up, he started solving one puzzle after another, until, by the end of the experiment, he was getting the all right. It was an unprecedented streak. “Normally, people don’t get better as the task goes along,” Kounios said. “If anything, they get a little bored.” Kounios believes that the dramatic improvement of the Zen meditator came from his paradoxical ability to focus on not being focussed, so that he could pay attention to those remote associations in the right hemisphere. “He had the cognitive control to let go,” Kounios said, “He became an insight machine.”

Ok – mega-cool!

As a recovering hyper-rationalist, I simply adore it when science and my spiritual practice intersect, and this anecdote suggests that the razor-thin line between Too Focused and Daydreaming that meditators cultivate can lead to a heightened ability to tap insight. The insight experience itself cannot be learned, but dwelling in the conditions leading to it might be teachable.

In other words, insight seems to happen at the intersection of relaxed concentration and non-attention – closely related to, but not quite what scientists call “flow.”

I’ve written about the benefits of daydreaming-enabled living for the One City blog before, and another passage from Lehrer’s article speaks to the helpfulness of Just Not Forcing It:

Although we often complain that the brain is too easily distracted, Schooler believes that letting the mind wander is essential. “Just look at the history of science,” he said. “The big ideas seem to always come when people are sidetracked, when they’re doing something that has nothing to do with their research.”

And the utility of strip clubs:

RIchard Feynman, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, preferred the relaxed atmosphere of a topless bar, where he would sip 7 UP, “watch the entertainment,” and, if inspiration struck, scribble equations on cocktail napkins.

Pole-dancers aside, the thing I find so exciting about this article is the same thing that I find so inspiring about a vivid dream: my subconscious mind is often more flexible, creative, and able to form unexpected connections than I am. It just might be that, paradoxically, the best way to solve a difficult problem is to simply ignore it and go sit in your bath or under an apple tree. Who knows, you might get lucky.

Date Me, The World Is Ending

No, seriously.

Waterfalls

In response to Olafur Eliasson’s upcoming NYC waterfalls installation (which is going to be a huge, wet let down), Curbed has come up with some artist renderings of what actual waterfalls would look like in the city.

Delightful chaos!

Real Long Distance

I a big fan of Josh Ritter and he’s recently made a (very) low-budget video for “Real Long Distance,” from his latest album The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter.

This goes out to all my women living oh-so far away (“You’re a real mean Mama but you got a lot of time for me“).

Idle is the New Ambitious

Scribblerist is a Senior Fellow at the Ida May Gurkis Institute for Idleness. He has not published since 1983. [Note: Originally posted on One City]

For graduation last year I was given Tom Hodgkinson’s How to Be Idle, a somewhat-revolutionary, pseudo-intellectual, rather-Marxist treatise on idling, creativity, and how to live life. My friend bought it for me because, he claimed, “you kinda look like the guy on the cover.” Translation: you’re the type to hob-nob at cafes, chatting about whatnot, procrastinating that novel you’re endlessly writing about Small Town America. He was, of course, dead on.

In the frenetic haze of post-graduate life, How to Be Idle was tonic. It often gave me that particular sensation that comes only from reading a good book, the feeling that “this book gets me.” I’ve zealously defended my idleness ever since.

At it’s core, How to Be Idle is a critique of capitalism in Western societies (what I heard Thom Yorke refer to as “Advanced Capitalism,” which made it sound like some kind of terminal illness that had nearly run it’s course). Hodgkinson is saying: industrialization came along and robbed us of leisure time, and all our various and sundry problems with stress, obesity, depression, and lack of agency could be solved with a little idling. Work, particularly in an urban office, is de-humanizing drudgery and should be avoided. We are so caught up in acquiring, scheduling, meeting, climbing, envying, and wanting that we have forgotten the art of simply doing nothing.

In fact, idling enables you to accomplish fewer things better, with a greater sense of reward because you have time to enjoy the doing of the thing. Dear recent and striving graduates: Idle is the new ambitious.

In an interview with Mother Jones, Hodgkinson lays out the basic tenants of his philosophy of non-doing, and I highly recommend it. He says:

MJ: When I first picked up the How To Be Idle I thought it was a self-help book, which in a way it is–but it’s actually more of a social commentary and a look at the history of overwork.

TH: I gave it that title slightly deliberately because it sounded more commercial. I didn’t want to call it A Disquisition on the Benefits of Idleness. The title How to be Idle, as you say, is self-help, but it’s a slightly satirizing self-help. The self-help thing always seems to be something like, “Ten Ways to be More Efficient,” and it’s so depressing. I used to try to do those things, and could never remember what the ten ways are. A lot of that adds to your pressures: now there’s a whole new set of rules you’ve got to try to remember and live up to.

MJ: Can you offer some practical first steps on how to be idle?

TH: Part of this individualism is you feel this pressure that you alone have to conquer the world, and if you don’t work all the hours God gives then you start feeling really guilty. If you can stop feeling guilty, then I think it’s easier to start doing what you want to do. The way to stop feeling guilty is to read stuff–I’m not saying my book, but works by Bertrand Russell or Oscar Wilde, people who weren’t losers but who didn’t believe in the work ethic, and argued this thing about guilt or wrote philosophy about idleness.

And I like his vision for an idle society:

TH: Hopefully it would be full of people bicycling along the streets and whistling and raising their hats to each other [laughs]. Going for long walks in the countryside, and mucking about each day. What would it take for that to happen?

It struck me that Hodgkinson’s thoughts on idling dovetail nicely with the hoped-for consequences of Buddhist meditation, if not the actual method. Idling is a gateway to a restful mind, where inspiration has space to arise naturally; Strolling in the park lends a connection to the natural world; sleeping in and waking slowly sets the tone for a calm day; free time lets you become involved in local politics or activism; myriad simple pleasures, instead of material or chemical stimulants, become paramount.

I’m taking up Hodgkinson’s banner. I urge you all to quit your jobs (or take a day off), spend a week in bed (or sleep late on Saturday), and devote yourself a simple art, such as playing the lute (or stay in tonight and cook dinner with your partner instead of seeing another big-budget Hollywood Suck-a-Thon).

Opportunities for idleness are all around – you just have to stop and take notice.

The Truth About Blogging

With bloggers getting book deals left and right, and a growing popular awareness that yes, blogging produces real writing and reportage, the reactionary, anti-blog voices in the MSM are beginning to sound like global warming deniers: shrill, stupid, and kind of sad.

That said, it’s no secret that, for me, blogging is often a distraction from writing fiction. This Candorville strip sums it up depressingly well.