Thursday, April 24, 2014

What I've Been Reading

In the year of Christ 1571, at the age of 38 years, on the eve of the calends of March [ie the last day of February], the anniversary of his birth, Michel de Montaigne, bored for a long time by his bondage at the Court of Parliament [in Bordeaux, where he served as an officer preparing case summaries for the magistrates] and by his public duties, still feeling full of energy, came to rest on the bosom of the learned virgins [ie the Muses] in calm and serenity; he will spend there the remaining days of his life.

Autopilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing by Andrew Smart. A special book for someone who looks up to Montaigne; his wisdom and lifestyle are now being vindicated by neuroscience.

The definition of idleness I explore in this book is the antithesis of busyness: perhaps doing one or two things a day, crucially on an internally imposed schedule. Chronic busyness is bad for your brain , and over the long-term busyness can have serious health consequences. In the short term, busyness destroys creativity, self-knowledge, emotional well-being, your ability to be social— and it can damage your cardiovascular health.

What follows is an exploration of what our amazing brains are doing when we are doing nothing . My goal is to offer bulletproof scientific excuses for laziness. But I also present possible neuroscientific insights into the relationship between idleness and creativity. Finally, I hope to hammer the first nails into a coffin for the insufferable time management industry.

On Randomness or noise:
Allowing the brain to rest opens the system to exploiting these mechanisms of nonlinearity and randomness, and amplifies the brain’s natural tendency to combine percepts and memories into new concepts. Anecdotal evidence from writers and artists, as well as recent psychological studies, leads to the understanding that in order to really tap the creative potential of the brain, a complex nonlinear system, we should allow ourselves long, uninterrupted periods of idleness. At a minimum, it is possible that resting is as important for brain health as is directed mental activity, if not more important. 

Given the ubiquity of noise in the brain and the environment, it is not surprising that evolution has endowed biological systems with the ability to use noise to find the signal. In fact if our brains were without randomness , they would not be able to function.

On Memory Consolidation:
If you get a good night’s sleep, relax for a while, or even take a nap, the hippocampus more or less writes these new memories to your neocortex, which houses your long-term memories. This is called memory consolidation. It is especially important when you are learning new ideas or skills. So the best thing to do after learning new information is to take nap , or at least be idle.

On Precuneous:
In the back of your brain (posterior) sits the precuneous. The precuneous is a hidden brain structure because it is close to the division between your brain’s hemispheres and parts of it are deep in your brain.However, the precuneous is also one of the regions that show the highest resting metabolic rate of any region in the brain. This means that at rest the precuneous starts devouring glucose like a crazed hummingbird. So if you can decouple from your “lean” workplace and start doing nothing, this hub in your default mode network revs up and starts redlining. Why is that important? The precuneous seems to be involved in self-reflection. One of the best ways to get to know yourself is to find a quiet or comfortably noisy place, stare at the sky, space out for a while and see what the precuneous gets up to. Like the precuneous, the parietal cortex is also involved in representing you to yourself , sometimes called “metacognition.” The ability to think about this question and to have some kind of answer comes partly from our lateral parietal cortex. Life would be pretty meaningless if you lacked any awareness of yourself.

On Lifestyle of American Kids:
When children enter school, and increasingly even before they enter school, parents fill up their lives with a stream of activities: sports, early exposure music classes, Chinese immersion school, summer camps, volunteer soup kitchen duties, dressage lessons, theater coaching, mathletics, and science workshops. There seems to be a pervasive and deep-seated anxiety among a certain class of parents that their children might actually have time to hang around and be children. Parents are forced to work longer and longer hours, sometimes just to keep the same pay. To replace ourselves we force our children to endure an endless barrage of activities that serve as proxy parents. We do this in order to convince ourselves that we still participate in some meaningful way in our children’s lives. We can get reports from teachers or coaches on our child’s successes— all without actually ever seeing the child do the activity we signed them up for. After all, we have more important things to do, like work! It should come as no surprise that as “play dates” overtake simply hanging around with friends and actually playing outside, childhood anxiety and depression rates are soaring, in tandem with childhood obesity.

Through the constant external demands and activities in which they are forced to partake, plus countless hours spent using digital devices, children have less and less time to introspect, process social and emotional experiences, and self-reflect. What’s more, children may develop an uncomfortable relationship with their idle selves, like many adults. When this happens, becoming idle will initially induce a feeling very similar to what a smoker craving a cigarette experiences: restless desperation. The child will seek out external stimulation in digital devices, approval from teachers, or from other adults. In a recent paper called “Rest is Not Idleness: Implications of the Brain’s Default Mode for Human Development and Education,” psychologists Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, Joanna Christodoulu, and Vanessa Singh hypothesize that allowing children to engage in free-form daydreaming and other types of inattentive states is essential to the development of social skills.

On Brain the Self-Organizing:
The individual neurons in our brains do not in themselves know that they are part of your brain, or that they make up “you.” Your consciousness is very much like the army ant’s bivouac. One of the persistent philosophical illusions we’ve had for centuries is that there is some place in our brain where a little person named Homunculus controls the actions of our brains. Or that even without Homunculus, there is a specific part of the brain that is somehow the command and control center, dictating what the brain should do. What neuroscience has revealed is that there is no such control center in the brain. There are hubs in our brain networks whose activity is more influential than others; however, there is no one single hub that dictates action. Our brains are much more like an ant colony: billions of neurons collaborating to give rise to our selves without any external or internal agent. In other words you are an emergent self-organizing phenomenon.

On Stress:
And it turns out that parts of the brain’s default mode network are tightly coupled to regulating variable cardiac rhythms. The anterior cingulate cortex, among other regions, plays an important role in regulating the stress that gets transferred to our heart. Idleness lets the ACC and our nervous system find stable and variable dynamics. Stress reduces the variability in our heart rate: a low level of anxiety forces the heart to be in a state of preparedness, which it cannot maintain indefinitely.
Stochastic resonance describes any phenomenon where the presence of noise, either internally or externally, in a nonlinear system makes the system respond better than it would without noise. In nonlinear dynamical systems— like the brain— noise can make the system behave in a more orderly fashion. It can also boost weak internal or external signals so that our sensory organs and even our conscious awareness can detect them. Noise and stochastic resonance are essential to consciousness.

On Six Sigma:
However, rather than just using it as a way to standardize production, companies began to apply the Six Sigma approach to every single business process, treating human beings as a series of inputs and outputs instead of sentient creatures. The single most important goal of the Six Sigma is to reduce variation in organizational processes by using disease vectors to spread throughout the company. These vectors are improvement specialists, a structured method, and performance metrics. This is similar to what the underlying disease in epilepsy does to neurons. During a seizure, the variations in the neurons are reduced. Reducing variation in the brain is devastating. Applied to an entire company , the Six Sigma process is analogous to an organizational epileptic seizure. Naturally, if you are making vaccines, aspirin, car parts, airplane engines, MRI scanners, or any other mass-produced thing that could potentially kill people, you want to prevent defects. In these types of highly automated manufacturing processes, Six Sigma makes sense. In fact, it makes sense to use robots to do most manufacturing. For repetitive automated tasks where very little decision -making is required, robots outperform human beings, no question. Six Sigma wants to make human beings as efficient as possible— predictable, reliable, nearly fault free, and with minimal interference from outside thoughts. Since Jack Welch Six Sigma-ed GE, the approach has spread to many major companies in the industrial sector and beyond. Some of the corporations that are having Six Sigma seizures include Fiat, Honeywell, Dow Chemical, Cameron, Sony, Johnson & Johnson, Bank of America, and Whirlpool.

The only system we know of in the universe that can be innovative is the human brain. But the brain seems to need things like freedom, long periods of idleness, positive emotions, low stress, randomness, noise, and a group of friends with tea in the garden to be creative. The truth is that we can’t have it both ways. Until we figure out how to give robots a “creative mode,” humans are going to be the only source of innovation for the foreseeable future. But the vast majority of business processes do not actually require human thought. Just as many time management strategies admonish you to get things out of your brain and into a physical organizer, Six Sigma would like to minimize human variation within the organization.

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