Documenting the Coming Singularity

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Make Time for Rest & Reflection

Today is Sunday. What do you do on Sunday? Many of you might go to church today. Some of you went to church or temple yesterday. Many of you have to go to work on Sunday. Many of you might do none of these things; instead, you might sleep in, get outside for some fresh air, go out to eat, watch sports, do the crossword puzzle.

The Judeo-Christian tradition holds that the Sabbath (some say it's Sunday, others claim it's Saturday) should be a day of rest and worship. I won't take the religious approach in this article since for all intents and purposes I am not a believer in a supernatural being, but there does seem to be a great deal of validity to the idea that human beings fare much better, both physiologically and psychologically, when we set aside for ourselves a day of rest and reflection; rest for the body and reflection for the mind. In the religious traditions I mentioned earlier, working on the day of rest is forbidden. We don't need to be religious, however, to enforce such an edict upon ourselves, if we see the value of such an island of time set aside to exclude all work.

An alarming number of adults in our society wake up feeling tired every day of their lives. They find themselves dragging themselves to work, with no energy and no enthusiasm. Is this how life is meant to be lived? Is this the natural order of things? Maybe not. Perhaps one potent answer to this common problem is, in fact, a day of rest and reflection.

It has long been known to researchers that the human brain operates on both conscious and unconscious levels, and that it requires diversion from work in order to function effectively. We have all been in the situation where we are completely bereft of any creativity or freshness, sitting with a blank stare, like fungus on a piece of decaying deadfall. I have sometimes combed the Internet for hours, hoping in vain for an idea to shoot out of my screen and into my head. What is the cure for that kind of mental vacancy? It is not to keep working at the same problem. Often it is to get my mind completely off that track and let it amuse itself for awhile. Only then can the dead batteries recharge so that I can return to the same insoluble problem to find that is not nearly so insoluble after all. In fact, my subconscious has solved it while my conscious mind has been enjoying some form of interesting diversion.

So how valuable can an entire day of diversion be? It can be enormously valuable, I have found. In a similar way that ten minutes of inconsequential play every hour or two can help me in the short term, so can a day of rest and reflection every seven help me in the longer term. Listen to a conversation with Dr. Fred Hardinge, who holds a Doctorate in preventive care:

FRED: Fatigue is a significant problem in our society today. A recent survey showed that two-thirds of Americans say they are very tired most of the time.

SHAWN: Two out of three of us are saying we're always tired.

FRED: That's correct.

SHAWN: Well, I have to admit that I probably fall into that two-thirds. I probably wake up tired much more often than I should. As a matter of fact, I've just finished a long itinerary, I am dragging myself around all the time, and the thing I'm curious about is, what does that do to us? If two-thirds of us are tired all the time, and we have jobs that place really high demands on us, what is it actually doing to us? Does it affect us?

FRED: It absolutely does, Shawn. A tired person is slower, they are less efficient, and they make more mistakes.


FRED: And a lot of research in recent years has demonstrated some of the reasons as to why that actually may be the case. We have observed for many years that tired people's performance slips. Tired soldiers don't make good soldiers, tired nurses make more mistakes, and tired doctors have more accidents on the way home. They, too, may make a few more mistakes even in their care of patients, although that's a difficult thing to prove sometimes. More and more research is looking at this kind of thing. However, probably the most fascinating kind of research to me has looked at why brain function seems to slow down.

SHAWN: Right. Now, I can understand-people make mistakes when they're tired. I say things I don't mean when I'm tired, I put this file in the wrong folder and so on, when I'm tired. But the thing I wonder about is, why? Why does fatigue do that to my mind, doctor? Because I'll share with you, I think of it as a computer. It ought to just work no matter how tired I am. I just plug it into an energy source and let it run. Why am I making mistakes when I'm tired? What is actually going on?

FRED: A series of studies have recently been done at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research over the last 10 years. And they have taken healthy subjects who are fully rested and, using modern technology that is non-invasive, looked at certain aspects of the function of the brain.

These individuals were tested when they had been fully rested, and then were awakened at six in the morning. Brain scans were done. They then were kept awake, but they weren't asked to do any difficult problem solving, simply remaining awake-a day at the beach twiddling one's thumbs.

SHAWN: OK, so they are not engaged in high thought processes, it's just day-to-day existence.

FRED: Very relaxed. Then on the same day, 16 hours after waking, the same tests were done, and when they compared the results, they found that the front part of the brain lost blood supply compared to when they were rested and first awakened.

SHAWN: So we don't have fuel going the to front part of the brain when we're tired?

FRED: Not as much.

SHAWN: So what does that do to us? I mean, why is the front part of the brain-you'll have to forgive my ignorance-but what does that front part of the brain do for us? What actually takes place there, and why is this affecting us?

FRED: The front part of the brain carries out the most important functions of the mind. It is where we make our decisions. And successful living is dependent upon good decisions.

SHAWN: Now, are we talking about the decision of which pair of socks to wear this morning, or are we talking about big or moral decisions?

FRED: It involves every decision, from the so-called small ones to the biggest one. And this research has demonstrated, given us a reason to understand, why the front part of the brain is so important to this decision-making process. There are what are known as the high-order mental functions-and there are five of them. The first is discrimination or discernment. It is the ability to recognize that there are choices we can make. And when you get up in the morning, a simple example is that you discern in your drawer between the white socks and the dark socks.

SHAWN: Yeah, you know, I always make the wrong decision. That's what my wife tells me.

FRED: That's why I ask my wife-and if it goes with it or not.

SHAWN: That's the discrimination or discernment.

FRED: There are no decisions to be made if there are no options.


FRED: I can't think of anything in life, any circumstance, that has no options at all. So, we make discernments all the time. We are exercising that. But when we're tired, we don't discern as well.

SHAWN: That can be dangerous when it gets into the moral realm, obviously.

FRED: Absolutely.

SHAWN: What are some of the higher mental order?

FRED: The net high-order mental function is judgment. That's where we evaluate those options that we have discerned.

SHAWN: Very good.

FRED: And we draw upon past experience, knowledge, etc., to choose which one is the best for the current set of circumstances. The next high-order mental function is initiative.

Initiative is the ability to start doing something now that we have decided we need to do. There are many times in life when we know what we should do, but we don't act on it.

SHAWN: That does happen all the time.

FRED: And when we're tired, discernment, judgment and initiative wane and we are not as effective in our decision-making. But it goes even further than that. Our ability to problem solve is a high-order mental function. And what happens when we're tired is we may look at the options and choose one that we think is the very best, based upon our judgment, but in reality, our field of vision has been narrowed, and we have missed the very best one. And that's because problem-solving requires the ability to look at all the possible options.

SHAWN: Now, that makes good sense to me. The other day I was exceptionally tired and somebody approached me and said, "What do you think about this? Should we do A, B or C?" And I looked at it, and you know something? I had only slept a few nights out of the previous week, and I couldn't make a decision. I looked at all the options and I said, "I don't know." I couldn't evaluate them; I couldn't do anything with them.

FRED: And E or F may not have even been within your vision, so to speak.

SHAWN: Absolutely.

FRED: And F might have been the very best one under those circumstances.

SHAWN: Right.

FRED: That is what happens when we're tired. The last high-order mental function is forethought, and this has much to do with efficiency. Forethought is the ability to begin doing something now that will save us time in the future. Tired people are not very efficient. It takes them longer to do the same things that they could have done when they were rested.

SHAWN: Now, that seems to make sense. In light of everything you have shared with me, we don't have the ability to make judgments in this state, we don't have the ability-our initiative is weakened, all of these areas are weakened. And so when you look at a task when you're tired, you can't always make the right decision to do it the best way or the most efficient way.

FRED: That is exactly what happens when we're tired.

SHAWN: Right. I think you have just described most people reading this script today. We have all lived with this, and we live with it much more than we ought to.

FRED: You have probably heard of Yo-Yo Ma, the world-famous cellist.

SHAWN: Absolutely-a favorite of mine.

FRED: He gave a concert in Carnegie Hall in New York City a few years ago, and following the concert, he got in a taxi to go to his hotel. He put his cello in the trunk of the taxi. When he got to the hotel, he paid the cabbie, he went into the hotel, went to his room, and then realized that his cello was left in the trunk.

SHAWN: Oh, my.

FRED: Now, he would not normally have done that. But in an interview with a newspaper reporter, he said, "I was so tired that I simply forgot it."

SHAWN: Now, I'm no Yo-Yo Ma, but the other day I left my camera on the airplane for the same reason. I was actually at the luggage carousel and mentally I was thinking, "I usually have three bags. Something's missing." And it took me 20 minutes or so until I realized my camera was still on that plane and it was leaving!

FRED: There is another area of the brain, Shawn, that is also affected by fatigue. It's called the thalamus, and it has many important functions, but relative to our decision-making, it passes all of the sensory information to the higher levels of the mind.

SHAWN: OK, so this is like a relay-switch from my sense of touch, taste, feel, hearing?

FRED: Exactly. And when we are tired, the funnel gets smaller, if you will. In other words, the same amount of information is coming in from the senses, but the funnel fills up because it's smaller, and some data is lost. When we make decisions on only partial information, that is when we tend to make catastrophic decisions. This is what happened with the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska.

You might think it ironic that I'm writing this article (working, in other words) on a Sunday. Well, I'm not perfect, but I'm working on it.

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