Linda Downing

The lost art of thinking

Some of us crave time alone, or do we? What were we thinking, or were we thinking?

Psychologist Jonathan Schooler says new research shows how far people go to avoid thinking. College students, left alone in bare rooms for six to 15 minutes without cellphones or other distractions, were told to entertain themselves by thinking good thoughts. In today’s terms — it freaked them out. The experiment fared no better when 61 people from the community tried it at home. Half admitted cheating. Twelve of 18 men and six of 24 women preferred applying electric shock to their own bodies — and did — rather than just using their brains.

According to Judy Jones, writing for More magazine’s July/August issue, “the human brain has a negativity bias.” The bad stuff pops up ahead of the good. Jones says we can rewire ourselves for happiness, but it does not come naturally. It requires practice.

Maybe the threat of “use it or lose it” could motivate us. We are losing basic motor skills. Columnist Froma Harrop recently urged us to use our hands more, such things as manipulating simple tools, practicing old-fashioned handwriting, and sewing with just needle and thread. She asks: “What will happen to a species that equips its toddlers with iPads?”

Even in this computer/robot age, time management experts have switched from glorifying multitasking to proclaiming the benefits of simplifying and concentrating on one thing at a time.

That wisdom, however, is not translating well in today’s fast-paced workplace. With more computer tools and software programs to speed us up, we work longer hours but still feel we cannot accomplish what we need to do. And worse, we are losing a good work-life balance.

In an article entitled “Frazzled Life, Fuzzy Brain?” (July, Oprah), Laura Hilgers explores what all this stress imparts. She points to a 1968-2005 study conducted on 800 women that found those who face a major stress at mid-life had a 21 percent increased risk of Alzheimer’s. We need to calm down, Hilgers concludes, and points to such things as exercise and meditation.

Meditation? We’re back to those folks who couldn’t endure even six to 15 minutes alone with their thoughts. There could be a clue here: We measure everything — something emphasized in the June AARP magazine. Measurement tools are a current craze: how many steps we take, how long we sleep, how many calories we eat and burn. The latest, Tikker, is a wristwatch that theoretically counts off how many years, minutes, and seconds the wearer has left to live.

Tikker hopes to impart carpe diem. Instead, it probably raises the tension. Another recent study by psychologist Linda Henkel found that snapping photographs in order to “remember” robs us of memory of the moment. The next day people in this experiment remembered 90 percent by observation while recollecting only 78 percent of what they photographed.

Surely aloneness doesn’t preclude books. I proclaim kinship with Thomas Jefferson: “I cannot live without books.” It turns out my favorite was again ahead of its time: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute…let your mind dwell on these things” (Philippians 4:8). Mastering the mind is hard; making it dwell on the good is impossible — without being alone with the Mastermind.

Finding truth requires the right starting point. That is the quest of this column. If we seek simple truth, we can find it together — side-by-side.

Linda M. Downing is a freelance writer. Contact her at