Time to think

Big Ben clock tower

Ask me for the most important broadcast on the BBC each day and my answer is a moment of silence.

It comes a second before six o'clock each evening on Radio 4, between the Westminster chimes and the heavy cracked bong of Big Ben.

This tiny scrap of what might usually be dismissed as dead air speaks louder than all the declamatory brass and frantic graphics of contemporary news broadcasting. It subtly informs listeners that this is a bulletin that values the time to think.

The news business trades on immediacy, but the preoccupation with now is pervasive. I am as guilty as anyone in feeling compelled to check the headlines, latest sports score, Twitter, Facebook, the FTSE, emails and texts in the tiniest gaps during my waking hours.

Those moments when the mind might once have been allowed to daydream and drift, to ponder and contemplate, are filled with urgent checking and responding.

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Contemplation requires time and space, commodities increasingly sacrificed on the altar of now”

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This may give an impression of purposeful activity but, if I am honest, is too often the irrational behaviour of a creature terrified of being found behind the curve.

An article in the New York Times by the biologist Neil Shubin last week employed a glorious phrase to describe this phenomenon: he wrote of how humanity's increasing need to communicate and trade had led to an "ever-finer parsing of the moments of our lives".

He contrasts this "need to segment a day into milliseconds" with the biological fact that "virtually every part of us - all our organs, tissues and cells - are set to a rhythm of day and night."

Our bodies are designed for a routine conducted in simple time: two beats in the bar, up at dawn and down at dusk. But modern life moves to a syncopated, insistent and incessant beat.

There is little opportunity to stand still, almost no pause in this unremitting daily dance.

Woman meditating

I am not the only one who worries at seeing meditation and reflection squeezed out of modern life. Professor David Levy from Washington University gave a talk a few years ago in which he asked why it was that, despite remarkable tools to automate information processing, "we have less time to think than ever before."

In his presentation, Levy argues that technological devices designed to connect us also dis-connect us, crowding out "slow time activities" such as "reflection, play and long-term love relationships."

There is a counter-argument to this demand for more time to reflect. In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, the Nobel Prize winning professor Daniel Kahneman describes the two different ways the brain forms thoughts:

  • System 1: Fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic, subconscious
  • System 2: Slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, conscious

He argues it would be a mistake to assume that logical thought somehow trumps automatic reaction. System 1 thinking is often highly sensitive to subtle cues and is, after all, the source of the "fight or flight" response that kept our ancestors alive.

Woman sitting at her desk thinking

Malcolm Gladwell goes further. In his book Blink, he suggests we live in a society dedicated to the idea that we should spend as much time as possible in deliberation. "As children, this lesson is drummed into us again and again: haste makes waste, look before you leap, stop and think. But I don't think this is true."

Gladwell argues that there are lots of situations when instant judgments are better than considered thought. "I think it's time we paid more attention to those fleeting moments," he says, suggesting a general policy of intuition would result in a happier world.

I am not sure I agree. We may all, at times, be too quick to dismiss the value of first impressions and snap decisions. But my concern is that System 2 thinking is being crowded out by the cult of immediacy.

Contemplation requires time and space, commodities increasingly sacrificed on the altar of now. In hectic lives overflowing with demands for instant response, reverie is too often banished.

The pipe may no longer be fashionable, but the pipedream cannot be exiled with it. We need to find the places and opportunities where we can muse and mull, ponder and daydream.

The few moments of radio silence that precede the six o'clock and midnight news bulletins on Radio 4 are a vital defence against the noisy evangelists of now.

Mark Easton Article written by Mark Easton Mark Easton Home editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    This article will resonate with many people. A few months ago I went along to my local Quaker Meeting House out of curiosity and joined them in an hour's "gathered stillness" one Sunday morning. The effect of finding that silent space for reflection was so restorative that six months later I'm a regular attender, though I wouldn't describe myself as remotely religious. I highly recommend it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    Sausage Tax
    Bankers Bonus
    Private Central Bank Taking us For a Ride
    rise in tuition fees
    Atos - telling - Born disabled to get to work ..cutting benefits
    Police getting pay cut
    Tax Haven - jammy Dodgers
    Royal Hoax - Nurse Pranked
    Barber Tax
    BedRoom Tax
    Granny Tax
    Bankers Aid Drug Cartel
    Flood House Insurance Revoked
    Con-Dem super glue coalition -milking power
    GoldManSachs Owns Europe

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.


  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    I love silence; as a working father, I get precious little of it, which is possibly why it's so welcome when it comes.

    Nothing is quite so pleasurable as allowing your mind to just drift. It's as near to being truly free as any of us will likely ever experience.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    Returning from a 10 day/2 week foreign holiday when I take them, I am always struck by the fact that, despite missing 14 days' "news" essentially nothing ever changes. I love it when I'm not bombarded with piffle every waking hour.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    I use time on buses, trains, and waiting for them, as times to sit and think. Many people are plugged in all the time, and in a sense never get the opportunity to be "bored". But actually, those times when thereĀ“s nothing to do can be the pauses in life which act like a brief moment of meditation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    7 "For this loss we have substituted indutrialization & for what?" - a standard of living beyond the wildest dreams of our ancestors? A comparative nirvana of life expectancy and disease free living? Do find it odd when people make these sort of vague, slightly mawkish and (ironically) thought free statements. Did you ever read about pre-industrialised England? It was rubbish.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Work often generates its own labour and I'm sure that many people these days have little time to themselves, given the proliferation of "kind" employers who provide us with laptops and mobile phones that don't complain at being switched on all day.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    It's easy peasy

    Stop watching TV for a month or two

    Our ruling clergy are always telling people to give up smoking etc but if you want to stop the nonsense banging around inside your head walk away from that shouting TV
    By all means watch an occasional DVD

    Then take up a hobby you enjoy, a pastime.

    Then watch the people around you go a bit mad as they smoke their daily dose of TV


  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    "we have less time to think than ever before."

    The real truth is that we have all the time we could want - but the great majority simply choose not to.
    I have heard it suggested that the reason people keep themselves so busy is precisely to avoid contemplation. They might realise that all the time and effort they put into living a "full life" has no meaning at all ... scary.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Great piece. How often do we all blame a lack of time, for the friendship lost for want of a call, your child's growing years you watched from the periphery of work. Each new piece of technology just seems to make us short of time to think & wonder, & even engage with those around us.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Whoops, "E", I marked you down by mistake. I should learn to take a few minutes of downtime to read comments as they are intended :o)

    Agree with you entirely . . .


  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    I find thought for the day on radio 4 gives me some clear contemplation space in my day. As soon as it comes on I turn the radio off and have five minutes silence in the car.

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    Comment number 13.

    In an insane rush to get as many experiences as possible into a span of time and to accomplish as much as possible the experiences become superficial the accomplishments often mediocre or worse.Thoughtful reflection has little place in the modern world.Once those who make decisions end their procrastination they expect instant results from others, get angry when they fail to meet expectations

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Interesting ideas Mark. Mmmm. Let me have a think about it and I'll get back to you.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    It's only in silence, comteplation that we can hear the "still small voice" of the divine. It whispers to us; it is our conscious, our subconscious...to the Old Testement prophets: the voice of God.
    In the clamour of industrialization, this voice cannot be heard...& slowly over time we drift away to that which is false & unworthy to that which is true & worthy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    In his testimony before Congress in 2008 after the financial collapse, Alan Greenspan, former Chairman of the US Federal Reserve testified before Congress: "There's something about markets I don't understand." And they say the British have a propensity for understatement.That something is the human factor that couldn't be programmed into computer models.It was the fatal flaw in deregulation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Interesting articule, but Kahneman's book doesn't promote one system over the other. Regarding intuition, he says the System 1 works well only in contexts where people have the opportunity to spend hours acquiring meaningful practice and experience (e.g. driving). I think Gladwell's book broadly concurs. So it's not about spending every second of each day making snap judgments.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    "Gladwell argues that there are lots of situations when instant judgments are better than considered thought."

    The dumbing down of society? I'm convinced.I've watched it happen.Computers are partly to blame.We substitute their mechanical rapid response for thinking.It's expected we too will be computers with instant answers.And when we do, it's often the wrong answer with serious consequences.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Terrific article.
    We are earthlings, detached from our roots; we no longer make the time to stop, watch the sunset, sunrise, or a flower in full bloom. For this loss we have substituted indutrialization & for what? We never seem to have enough. We want - cars, houses, vacations; and when we have them, we still want, as though we know subconsciously we have wanted all the wrong things.


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