The resting of the great American mind

Chris Reads
5 min readMay 3, 2024

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One of my friend’s partners had this game that she would play with herself. I never knew if she named it, but I like to think of it as Psychopath Rationalization: it boils down to imagining news breaking that someone is a serial killer, and identifying the single trait would best complete the sentence: “Of course they were a murderer! They also do XYZ!” For her, my trait was that I chose not to listen to music when running. I don’t for several reasons, chiefly because I don’t want to bring my phone, but I imagine that’s a hinderance for many people who end up bringing their phones along anyways.

In developed Western society, we have won the war against boredom. Ennui, once the bane of free time, is no more. We have entertainment and stimulation of the likes that people a mere twenty years ago could not even imagine, much less have the skillset to enjoy. Movies, music, porn, and video games certainly existed, but only as distant relatives of their mind-bending relatives today. Importantly, everything had to be consumed intentionally at the turn of the century, but the allure of instant gratification follows people everywhere these days. There are no more lulls and quiet periods for the mind to rest and process events: information and stimulus must be constantly fed into the brain or else boredom might stage a coup. Fortunately, there is little possibility of that for anyone with a fully charged phone.

This is not a diatribe against the deterioration of attention spans across all age groups, as I’ve made my thoughts clear on that one. Nor is it a condemnation against grinder culture and the productivity mindset that capitalism necessarily fosters, as I don’t see much issue with that. This is a suggestion that there would be benefit to disengaging the active gears of brain for periods of time every day that doesn’t consist of the three Ss: sleeping, showering, and defecating. Over the last twenty years, it is a well-established phenomenon that great ideas tend to emerge as people are in the shower, because it is the last bit of protected time in most people’s lives. People are constantly engaged in some sort of mental stimulation, and increasingly, they need it. Social media has trained our brains to crave stimuli. Going to the gym is too boring, there has to be a podcast. Dinner isn’t enough, we need a television program. This has even begun to permeate into how people spend time with each other: without some music or an activity, company is not enjoyable company; gone are the days of idling at a café or bar to converse.

But what the mind actually needs is rest! It needs time to introspect, to process all the information it has received without any distractions. Some people claim that music and even television only serve as background noise which don’t detract from the task at hand; they are either wrong or a higher life-form which I cannot comprehend. How often do people turn down music when backing into a tight spot? How much slower is dinner ready when watching a Friends rerun instead of cooking alone? The dual-screen sludge content that our modern attention spans have adapted to have also rendered us unsuitable for tasks that require a singular focus. We have become a Siamese connection that must stay open at all times. The total output is likely higher, but it is no longer possible to focus the same amount of power into just one task.

More sinister yet is the newfound inability to spend time completely idle. When the newly attention-deficit want a break, it’s not spent resting and reflecting or a walk to the water cooler. Instead, it’s a quick scroll on the preferred social media platform, or a scan of messages. In some ways, placating stress and anxiety is fine because they are symptoms of our primate brains reacting to modern pressures, and the root cause shouldn’t be a trigger at all. On the other hand, reoccurring stress and anxiety might better be combated by thinking through the issue. Perhaps all these stress-causing factors wouldn’t have even accumulated if there was more idle time for the brain to process these matters.

I too, am guilty of all of the above. I answer emails and do other work while attending meetings. When I eat alone, I read or watch something on my computer. I listen to health podcasts at the gym. I play music when doing the dishes. I don’t doubt that I’ve become more efficient, but I now find myself unable to pay attention during meetings without visual stimulation, even ones that involve just two people. I scroll Reddit while the meeting transpires, or watch pointless YouTube videos to stay engaged. But I try not to bring my phone to the washroom. Writing is an exercise in single-minded focus, as is reading. I try to resist the urge to whip out my phone when waiting for whomever or whatever. And I don’t listen to music on long runs.

Sometimes, being completely isolated without technology is therapeutic. I recall when this first happened on an Antarctician cruise, when I was completely unable to look at anything, and instead succumbed to my thoughts. I imagine that’s what the end goal of a day-long no technology, no conversation retreat is like: no brain fog, nothing living in my brain, without anything hiding in the corners. Most recently, I was on an ultra-longhaul flight and around hour thirteen, I could no longer sleep. But I also couldn’t summon the willpower to watch a movie, much less read or write. Under normal circumstances, I’d be the perfect victim for a television serial to be played in the background or a doomscroll on my social medium of choice. Instead, I sat there, with my eyes open, my mind wandering. It just drifted idly from thought to thought, completely detached. To call it meditation would offend all serious practitioners of the exercise, but it was a great excursion into the land of boredom, where I haven’t been for a while.

So try it. Commute to work without music, do the dishes without a television show, and go for a walk without a podcast. See what happens. Maybe your worries will dissipate. Maybe you’ll get a brilliant idea. Whatever it is your mind will at least finally get the break it deserves.

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