WEEDING OUT HEAD NOISES: It will enrich our relationships, work and everyday life
A PERSON I recently met stopped me in the hallway the other day and apologised profusely. "I'm sorry," he said. "I'm sorry I didn't say much the other day."
"Why is that necessary?" I asked.
"Because it was an unusual day," he said. "I had taken up a friend's listening challenge. For one full day I decided to say very little. I just wanted to listen to what people say."
"What did you learn?" I asked him.
"A lot," he said. "I heard a lot that I had not heard before. I recommend it to you."
"Oh why, thank you!"
The fact is we are all listening all day, even as you are reading this now. Even -- especially -- when you are sitting alone at the table, sipping your cup of tea. Call it head noises, continuing narrative or, as neuroscientists prefer to call it, the default mode network, even though it touched on only just one aspect of his daily activity that my newly found friend was trying to master.
Even though what my friend was trying to weed out was the clutter in conversation that he himself was producing whilst engaging with the other, he also found another problem, that that made his mind wander.
"I used to talk all the time," he said. "I found a lot about people I had been conversing with almost all day, every day."
He found that very useful. He found how people spoke, how they shaped their thoughts, and how even the silence in between speeches -- he wasn't talking, remember? -- became excruciatingly unbearable.
But then, he said, the head noises were worrying him even more. He found that he frequently sank into himself and was listening to the drift of his mind even as his friend was talking to him.
"That's the default mode network that brain scientists have been warning us about," I told him. "Your brain has a default state, and that default state is telling you stories."
"What a nuisance," he said.
"No," I said, speaking as a dreamer myself in the broad light of day. "It keeps you sane. You'll go bonkers if you can't. Your mind isn't losing focus, but simply switching to something more engaging. Er, what was it you were saying to me just a minute ago?"
The brain in its idle state is never idle but continues to flow in a running narrative. For me it is one reason why narratives are so important to us, because it makes sense of ourselves, of our daily existence in this world. But I will hook this to an even greater benefit later.
The brain, bless its 86 billion neurons, is always looking for work to do, searching for answers, sensing our external environment and looking for unfinished works in our cerebral symphonies. The posterior cingulate cortex, the adjacent percuneus and the medial prefrontal cortex, go and thank them all that you are still whole.
In your daily life you'll always be confronted with these two layers of awareness: the thing that you are doing now and the thing that you drift into even without your being aware of it.
When you are washing those cups at the sink your mind often wanders away from the present reality. You will start wondering how the meeting tonight will go, if the plumber will charge you a hefty fee for tomorrow's job or how you will plan your project paper for next Monday. You will probably cut your finger on a broken cup as your mind goes adrift. And then you snap back to the present reality.
What it shows here is that your mind can switch back and forth, from the reality present and reality adrift. Inability to control or distinguish one from the other may be the basis of some forms of mental illness where realities are confused. But for successful work the mind must be able to switch from one to the other, and neuroscientists are beginning to discover how.
The key may lie in rediscovering your conscious efforts. Spend your walking time in re-discovering the things around you, discover your streets anew. On your way to work, instead of putting yourself into auto-pilot mode and letting your mind fly into default network, make a conscious effort to look and see.
A good way of reinforcing this is by writing a daily journal of what you see and how you've discovered a different route to school. In fact it is at school that focus is needed and should be taught because focus is at the core of mind training, verbal reasoning and being in control.
There is a movement now called 'mindfulness' which is in fact old wine in a new bottle. Mindfulness is being mindful of what you do so that you discover your bicycle as you're cycling anew.
Apply that to relationships, to work and in your everyday life. It will give you the skill to switch from one to the other, to bring into call both your short term memory and your default network. And that is the root to creativity.