It has become part of my daily routine to slip headphones on as I leave the front door. I don’t take them off until I reach my destination, unless I’m buying something in a shop or giving directions – as the writer Lucy Prebble has remarked, “taking off headphones is the new removing your hat”. I sometimes listen to music, but mainly I listen to talk.
Podcasts are one of the best things about modern media. I love that, whatever I get interested in, I can tap into clever, funny, ridiculously erudite people talking about it. I listen to discussions of politics (the New Statesman podcast, of course, and FiveThirtyEight for the American scene); books (Backlisted); ideas (Rationally Speaking), and the Beatles (Screw It, We’re Just Gonna Talk About the Beatles). I listen to people talking about health policy, medieval wars and neuroscience.
However, while talk is limitless, brains have finite bandwidth and all this listening comes with what an economist would call opportunity costs. For one thing, listening to a podcast takes up some of the mental resources I would otherwise be using to navigate my environment. On the Tube, my headphones turn me into a lumbering menace to fellow commuters (many of whom are, of course, wearing headphones). I also know that I’m missing out on some of the overheard conversations that make urban travel an eavesdropper’s paradise.
Perhaps the biggest cost, though, is that I’m listening to myself less. When I’m riveted by the narrative of a real-life murder mystery, my thoughts don’t wander, and it’s only when thoughts are allowed to wander that they become interesting.
Neuroscientists who study attention used to think of it mainly as something directed outside ourselves, towards another person, or a screen, or to new information. Over the past decade or so, they have come to recognise the value of a more inward kind of attention – the kind that drifts through our inner mental world without being directed anywhere in particular. Mind-wandering, far from being random neural chatter, is now recognised as the source of some of our deepest insights and most strategic thoughts, and crucial to mental health and to creativity.
Scientists first started taking mind-wandering seriously after noticing that when people in a brain scanner have no mental tasks to perform and are thinking about nothing in particular, their neurons do not rest inert, but become active in a different way. In the brain’s resting state, a web of interacting brain regions called the “default-mode network” kicks into gear.
Our minds start roaming through time and space, replaying memories and conjuring future scenarios. We reflect, in a haphazard way, on our personal relationships, simulating encounters with others as emotions such as anger, joy or anxiety ghost through us. We also solve problems, seemingly without effort – hence the truism that the best ideas arrive in the shower or on a walk.
A crucial point about the default mode is that it gets suppressed when our attention is directed outwards. The brain can toggle between the two programs but finds it hard to run both at the same time. So when I’m scrolling through a feed, or listening to a podcast, my brain has less energy to pursue what the scientists call “constructive internal reflection”.
Much contemporary concern over technology use focuses on the question of whether screens and social media are doing us harm. This is the wrong emphasis. We should be looking at the activities that are getting displaced, and what we stand to lose from their usurpation.
In her 1929 essay A Room of One’s Own Virginia Woolf argued that one reason women have been kept from writing is that they have not been afforded solitude: “In the first place, to have a room of her own, let alone a quiet room or a sound-proof room, was out of the question, unless her parents were exceptionally rich or very noble, even up to the beginning of the nineteenth century.”
Woolf was one of the first writers to capture the meanderings of the inner voice, and by doing so, to elevate it. She made daydreaming respectable, at least in literature. In the real world, we still don’t value it enough.
One of the great boons of the connected age is that it’s much easier to avoid boredom. Now that we can watch videos or chat to friends whenever we want, queues and waiting rooms do not hold quite the same terrors they once did. As well as entertaining ourselves, we can be more productive, consuming new information on the go. But the accompanying danger is that our attention is constantly drawn outwards, engaged by endless piecemeal tasks, becoming a light that bounces off every surface without ever penetrating beneath. What problems do we store up for ourselves when we don’t give our minds time to process knotty emotional problems? How many good ideas will be killed once we start taking devices into the shower?
We tend to think of the benefit of solitude as freedom to focus on the task at hand – to get on with writing a book without the phone ringing or friends to meet for lunch. But solitude also enables us to become creatively unfocused, scattering thoughts far and wide.
Since Virginia Woolf was writing, many more people, including women, can afford the luxury – which is actually a necessity – of hours spent inside our own heads. Yet more of us are eschewing it, more of the time. I think that’s a mistake. It may not be the most ambitious New Year’s resolution, but this year, I will sometimes choose to leave my headphones at home.
This article appears in the 16 Jan 2019 issue of the New Statesman, How Brexit trapped Britain