A year or so ago I turned forty. Ever since, I’ve seriously started to wonder if I’m getting dumber as I’ve aged through my fourth and in to my fifth decade.
I used to pride myself on having a nimble mind, on being able to solve complex problems. In a meeting with waves of conflicting viewpoints and suggestions, I could part the sea awash with ambiguity and lead everyone across to the shores of clarity — chest puffed out to the sounds of energetic agreement. “Yes, that’s a fantastic idea!”
Now there are times I need to crank the handle well in advance to get my motor running and, even then, it’s a little clunky and creaky, in need of some oil. Boldly parting the seas less often and instead progressing across with the slow putt-putt of a little tin boat capable of tipping in to the ambiguous abyss at any point. Energetic agreement replaced by sighs of resignation. “OK, I guess that’ll do”.
A decade of mind depreciation
Could it be true that I simply used to be smarter ten years ago than I am now?
I don’t mean smarter in an academic sense. I’m referring to what I think of as “brain smart”: Easily able to grasp new ideas; connect ideas together in more meaningful ways; uncover creative solutions and insight to solve problems.
Sure, a lot has happened in those ten or so years — my wife and I created two humans, moved across Australia and then across the world and I shifted from the comfort of Microsoft to the unknown of startups. So perhaps my brain is just busier?
Actually, I think I’m on to something. Maybe my brain IS busier…but with time wasting twaddle.
Because another massive change in the last ten years is the increase in screen time. Particularly, the omnipresent iPhone.
The dying art of daydreaming
I used to daydream a lot more. I specifically remember looking forward to doing nothing and letting my mind wander…sometimes it was in bed when I woke early or it was in the shower or at night when I turned off the TV. There were days in summer I’d lay on the trampoline in the yard catching sun rays and dreaming like some kind of solar powered thought machine.
But when do we allow ourselves this down time anymore? We’re standing in line at the coffee shop, looking at our phones. We’re sitting on the plane waiting for others to board, looking at our phones. We wake up in the morning and look at our phones. We sit on the toilet while looking at our phones (you know you do it 😉).
JK Rowling famously dreamt up Harry Potter while day dreaming on train trips in the 1990s. Had she taken those trips now, instead of twenty-five years ago, she may well have reached the top level in Candy Crush or Wordscapes but the world would be without Harry, Hedwig and Hogworts.
Just stop what you’re doing right now and look around — how many people in your direct eye-line are looking at a device? Now, rule out those sitting at computers and actually working…how many are looking at a mobile device as they’re waiting in line or sitting eating lunch or simply traveling from A to B? I bet you can count quite a few.
Those moments of downtime, where nothing has our attention and we let our minds wander, are few and far between.
And it could be what’s making me feel dumber.
Diffusing the screen time bomb
A few months back I read this article by Danny Forest which led me to completing a Coursera class called “Learning to Learn”. In it, the concept of focused versus diffused thinking is heavily discussed.
Diffused thinking is what happens in times of downtime when we’re not focusing on specific tasks. It’s when our brain is forging new neural pathways, connecting, absorbing and making sense of different patterns and ideas. It’s where creative, out-of-the-box thinking is most likely to happen. It’s daydreaming.
It seems reasonable then that I — and arguably most of us — am giving my brain less opportunity to forge those new pathways.
Where I once stopped to ponder, I now Pinterest. Where I once let my mind wander, I now Whatsapp. Instead of a meandering mind, I’m on Messenger. Where I could be relaxing, instead I’m Reditting. In place of a lucid mind, I’m on LinkedIn. When I once let my mind be free, I now let it Facebook.
You get the point.
So it may well be that my feeling of dumbness — my perception of the slowing down of clarity and spontaneous out-of-the-box thinking…my inability to part the seas of ambiguity like I once could — can be attributed to starving my brain of diffused thinking.
Turning on by switching off
Over the past two months I’ve made a purposeful effort to put the phone down, turn off the TV and keep the tablet in my top drawer. I walk without listening to podcasts; sit at coffee shops and stare out the window at life going by; take time out to meditate or even just sit in a corner for fifteen minutes quietly with my thoughts. All in an effort to turn on my diffused thinking.
It’s already made a difference. Most of the articles I’ve published here on Medium over the past months were ideas born from my practice of making time to do nothing.
Nothing except allowing my mind to wander in to the realms of diffused thinking. Perhaps I’m not dumber after all.