Creativity in the age of electronic brain strain

Reading William Power’s book, Hamlet’s Blackberry, gave me pause, and having mental breathers has actually been found to be one of the main ingredients for developing deep thought and creativity. One of our driving cultural mantras has become “connect with more people and more information and perform this faster and with more intensity”, causing people to experience information overload, overstimulation, and a perceived lack of control over their lives.

Powers makes a strong argument for the need for “gaps”, i.e. quiet reflective time after a mental task that allows for insights, epiphanies, creativity, depth of thinking, and time to play with ideas. Most experts agree that our best new ideas and creative thoughts come during these states of contemplation and daydreaming. These respites from screens allow thoughts to blossom and mental connections and associations to occur.teen girls-6-11-13-PS'd

People throughout history have yearned for quieter, simpler times whenever new technologies emerged. This was true with the arrival of written language, the printing press, the telegraph, railroads, the telephone, radio, TV, the internet, and of course the explosion of new electronics in the past 30 years. Some people created distance from the subsequent busyness and information strain by escaping to nature (Thoreau), others by avoiding it for as long as possible. What I think our kids need help with is experiencing the value of digital respites, being more internally directed and aware, and learning how to be comfortable with solitude.

Kids, and especially teenagers, need still times to gather themselves. These gaps would allow them to bring loads of outside information and stimuli inside to sort through and process. They would feel in control of their emotions and experiences because they would discover what they want and need.

The comedian Louis C.K., in a Rolling Stone interview on 4-25-13, described how he used to get writer’s block when working on new material, and in his frustration he’d move over to the Internet to buy something or cruise social networking sites. But he realized he was missing out on something crucial to his creative process: when he stuck with the frustrations, his best creative thoughts and epiphanies emerged. So he started writing on a computer with no Internet connection to allow those innovative ideas to percolate. I worry that teens that are constantly multitasking and being incessantly interrupted by texts, emails, and other electronics never achieve the “flow” moments and deep engagement necessary for true creative and original thought.

It’s not enough to prescribe ideas like electronic breaks, writing with pen and paper, being mindful, and spending time in nature to allow gaps from screens. Kids, like us, need to stop looking outward for solutions to inner problems. Stress, information overload, and busyness is not imposed upon us, it’s a choice. Everyone needs to develop the capacity to be alone, and to use and enjoy times of solitude. Teens must become aware of the addictive pull of electronics and the need to be forever connected. Young people who stay endlessly connected to hundreds of “friends” on social media 24/7 haven’t heard in a long time from the most important person in their lives, themselves.

I want our youth to understand and then embrace the positive effects of gap time and alone, quiet moments. Imagination, original thought, creativity, and intuition are found in the still moments of life. Embracing these moments may be the most important lesson your children ever learn.

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