What’s going on. . . when nothing’s going on?

In what passed as the dark ages of neuropsychobiology (certainly for me!), aka five decades ago, wannabe clinical psychologists were deemed to be lacking in the ‘hard science’ exposure that defined academic psychology. The discipline was polarized into ‘applied’ (the ‘us’) and ‘research’ (the ‘them’). In efforts to balance this (quite real) disparity, we future clinicians were required to complete a potpourri of four-week ‘samplers’ designed to plug the leaky dike that was applied psychology — I’m sure, every bit as torturous for the faculty drawing the short straw as the student abruptly plucked from his soft, touchy-feely, people-based (ugh!) prospectus and thrust into the rigour and precision of signal detection theory and neuropsychology in general. Who knew, long before the DSM-5 was even a glint in anyone’s eye, that brain science would come to define both sides of ‘the great divide’; and that the bespectacled, aloof, ‘lab guy’ who spent his happiest hours inserting electrodes into the brains of Rhesus monkeys (and his unhappiest attempting to pound a lifetime of research into smug grad students’ brains in one short month!) would be so figural — in his own esoteric way.Screen Shot 2020-05-12 at 7.41.55 AM

A couple of decades after this semester from hell, Quirks and Quarks, a favourite CBC go-to of mine, aired a segment on problem solving. The twist for this research was that ‘real work’ could be done . . . while we’re asleep. In short, instead of just twiddling its Delta wave thumbs, waiting to get back on the waking job and wiling its time away in passively restorative functions, the brain becomes available to a very different kind of work. It becomes a lateral thinking machine! Freed from the constraints and distractions of waking periods, it’s able to roam and speculate in a marvelously free-associative way that opens to possibility, observing out of the corner of its metaphoric eye things, options that would be evaluated and rejected, if noted at all, during waking time. Welcome creativity.

The ‘set up’ for this particular segment was being presented with a riddle with instructions to read it over two or three times immediately before retiring. On waking, one was to note any possible solutions — or more properly ‘indications of solution’ that may have surfaced over night. In this case, we were asked to consider a man, running in one direction, looking up, and seeing a second man, wearing a mask (how particularly poignant during a pandemic!), and then running back in the direction from which he’d come. Two waking images, from my night’s sleep bubbled up (apologies for the double entendre): an old-fashioned drinking fountain with its ongoing jet of water holding a baseball suspended at the jet’s apex; and a fuzzy awareness of Kelly Gruber, the Blue Jays third basemen at the time, standing on first base. The solution, completely out of reach on retiring, clicked: a baserunner, attempting to steal home from third, sees the catcher with ball in hand; and retreats to third base. Hmm. (Now if I’d only put that long, dry, neuropsych. text under my pillow. . .)

Another thirty years forward in the time machine. Nicola ran across a fascinating book recently, Rest. The author, Alex Pang, makes a well-illustrated and compelling, evidence-based argument for purposeful, scheduled periods in our days and weeks for, as his title suggests . . . resting. Far beyond merely fallow time, when we are simply ‘not working’, the case is made for planning these periods and defending their sanctity, as sources of creativity and inspiration. Focussed, intense, concentrated, and effortful work generally is required for, as one early 20th century author puts it, the ‘preparation and incubation of’ ideas, insights — those things we like to call ‘aha moments’. The instant of illumination, however, when the light bulb actually turns on, often occurs in the unfocussed, daydreaming, reflective times when we are engaged in ‘restful activities’ — walking, napping, meditating, . . even sleeping.

Screen Shot 2020-05-12 at 10.17.26 AMEvidently, our brains ‘knew’ this all along — just hadn’t shared the wisdom with us until relatively recently. A diffuse, set of neural connections, initially thought to be irritating, difficult to partial out, ’background static’ (in early fMRI research) turns out to be a gear the brain kicks into when, well, we’re not doing anything! Instead of this activity being a water-treading, idling state, akin to the ‘stealth mode’ that hybrid vehicles slide into when waiting for the next push on the gas pedal, our brain moves over to the Default Mode Network (DMN). Our ‘modern’ preoccupation with measuring the usefulness of states / activities by the time invested in, the (apparent) output generated by, the ‘degree of difficulty’ attached to has marginalized these overtly ‘pointless’ periods as wool gathering at best, wastes of time at worst. Quite lemming-like we become human doings (vs. human beings).
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Seems distributing four to five hours of intense focus over our day, interspersed with planned, safeguarded periods of activity normally associated with leisurely, ‘unproductive’ pastimes — even sleep, that most expendable commodity, regularly encroached upon in the name of ‘getting stuff done’. Finding one’s rhythm is an individual experiment. But the math remains the same: some variation on 2 parts sleep, 1 part intense focus, 3 parts . . . rest.

So I’m trying to compose a Mother’s Day poem. The elements are there for my favored form: haiku. Swallows, their preferred food (insects) — nature and metaphysical allusion. But no cigar. A good night’s sleep, a little time spent with the DMN and:

Midges: swarm, shiver,
Swallows: dart, swallow —
Drawn by feast to this false Spring

Never going to win any prizes for literature — but the connections amongst a snowy Sunday morning in May, a hat-tip to an Aesopian fable, and the immediacy and grace of flocks of birds in their well-choreographed dance.

What’s going on when nothing’s going on — evidently quite a lot!