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 46.

    5 seconds silence? The Quakers spend an hour in silence together for their worship. Now that's a refreshing change in this day and age.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    I used to advise my new staff 'don't react, respond'. Too many problems were cause by people just reacting without thinking things through. The more I've thought about this the more I think it should be applied to life in general. Too often our culture (particularly the media) demands and focuses on the reaction to an event, very little time is spent considering the right way to respond to it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    "...he asked why it was that, despite remarkable tools to automate information processing, "we have less time to think than ever before."

    And I can ask with all the labor saving devices we have today, why is it that I hardly have time to catch my breath and just chill- out?

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    I simply don't recognise this world where there's no time to think, to draw breath. Of course I occasionally feel impelled to respond, but then so did my cave-man ancestor when he met a sabre-toothed tiger.
    But mostly, there's time, to read Shubin and Kahneman, if that's what you want. Or to not watch the news.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    What about introducing the equivalent of the one second silence on HYS ... the first post on each new thread could be intentionally blank.
    Signalling to us all that we should pause for reflective thought before posting

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    Fascinating... but time to think is there if that is how you choose to spend some of your time. I find plenty of it... and when I do turn to 'doing something' I do that thing more effectively because the thinking time has already been spend on deciding how to do that thing... even if it's computer code. I can sit down & just write it directly, because it's thought about before I reach the keyboard

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    The moment of radio silence is a split second to reflect. It has preceded some momentous bulletins. On 3rd September 1989 the BBC broadcast the bells and a few seconds of the news at 6pm to commemorate 50 years since the start of hostilities in WW2 and then cut to the live programme. I remember being completely overcome with emotion. There was certainly a moment to ponder.

  • Comment number 39.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    As an avid radio listener - particularly to Radio 3 and 5 live I remember well the days all the announcers on Radio 3 were well trained into the required 'pause' between concerts/programmes and pieces of music - 'Arrghhh wonderful - a beautiful pause' and not having to listen to mind dumbing jingles and useless DJ blurb, on Radio 3 it could last up to 5 to 10 seconds,alas not anymore.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    "Mungo often ponder on this game of life" Blazing Saddles.

  • Comment number 36.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • Comment number 35.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    Excellent piece. I worry at the future we are creating through instant media, the ADHD of the masses.

    Meditation puts one in touch with the real self, the background beingness that is the same for us all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    I suspect opening this topic up to HYS will little impact on the very many HYSers who never appear to think about about anything other than spouting off on the basis of their gut instinct......

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    Personally, I have a few minutes of silence each day when I mute the radio player because of "Thought for the Day".

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    It's just that, dead air. A broadcaster's job is to broadcast, inform and entertain. I'll pick my own times to reflect in silence thanks very much. How much does silence cost, per hour, from the license payers pocket?

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    18 penguin337 - Please tell me your inclusion of the word "simples" was ironic in that statement?

    ouch. lol

    I haven't bothered with TV for well over 12 months now

    Alongside smoking it's the smartest thing I've ever done in a long time

    You don't even miss TV after 6 weeks because it's so vacuous

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    There was a time when Radio 3 used to incorporate long silences - as long as 30 seconds - between broadcasts; time to reflect for a moment, then get up and turn off, or over, or whatever took my fancy. Then someone, probably "inspired" by the examples of Radios 1 & 2, decided that this was unacceptable.

    Such a shame - and I do so miss it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    Perhaps there are ways in which it is true that evolution has flaws, can become obsolete, become used for reasons originally unintended, that we may decide to go against its solutions at some point for some reason, and that these could be included under the auspices of both 'quick, automatic responses' as well under 'long contemplation'. When i watch i see that both of mine make many blunders..

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    18 penguin337 - Please tell me your inclusion of the word "simples" was ironic in that statement?
    To comment on the folly of TV then quote an overused catchphrase from an insurance advert...


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