Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Dangerously Alone

There's a fascinating statment at Edge.org's feature asking a variety of outstanding scientists and technologists what their dangerous idea is. Leon Chalupa's (neurobiologist from UC Davis — go Aggies) is silence:

Our brains are constantly subjected to the demands of multi-tasking and a seemingly endless cacophony of information from diverse sources. Cell phones, emails, computers, and cable television are omnipresent, not to mention such archaic venues as books, newspapers and magazines.

This induces an unrelenting barrage of neuronal activity that in turn produces long-lasting structural modification in virtually all compartments of the nervous system. A fledging industry touts the virtues of exercising your brain for self-improvement. Programs are offered for how to make virtually any region of your neocortex a more efficient processor. Parents are urged to begin such regimes in preschool children and adults are told to take advantage of their brain's plastic properties for professional advancement. The evidence documenting the veracity for such claims is still outstanding, but one thing is clear. Even if brain exercise does work, the subsequent waves of neuronal activities stemming from simply living a modern lifestyle are likely to eradicate the presumed hard-earned benefits of brain exercise.

My dangerous idea is that what's needed to attain optimal brain performance — with or without prior brain exercise — is a 24-hour period of absolute solitude. By absolute solitude I mean no verbal interactions of any kind (written or spoken, live or recorded) with another human being. I would venture that a significantly higher proportion of people reading these words have tried skydiving than experienced one day of absolute solitude.

Well, I'm one of them, at least to a limited extent. I am an oblate of New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur. This is a community of Camaldolese Benedictine hermits, and is perhaps the quietest place I know, 1,800 feet above the Pacific Ocean with a 20 mile view down the coast. Every year, I spend at least a few days on retreat there, alone. There are nine rooms in a retreat house, and several small trailers just below the main community, for those who want even more solitude. You can join the monks for the liturgies during the day, or meet with a priest for confession or spiritual direction. Or you can just be by yourself, alone with the silence.

The first time I went there, I was given one of the trailers. And for the first day I climbed the walls -- I had never been so alone, even with something to read (which violates Dr. Chalupa's rules). But I started to handle it the second day, but I didn't really go cold turkey. In addition to books, I would walk up to the bookstore when it got too much. Each time I have gone to the Hermitage, I have found it a little easier to drop into solitude, and to just be alone with God a little longer.

Dr. Chalupa himself notes that one of the few places where you would encounter this is at a monastery (the other being solitary, today generally referred to as Ad Seg). If you want to assess the kind of changes that are going through our society, consider that religion, beyond being something to debunk, is no longer a taboo subject for all scientists. The scientific world view is different from the religious, and each is useful for different things. One of the signs of the postmodern world is the tolerance of different, and at least apparently conflicting, ideas and world views. The recognition is that all world views have their limits, and fields where they apply well -- humility is required.

I guess it's back to believing seven impossible things before breakfast.

(Thanks to Xeni Jardin and Boing Boing for the link.)

No comments: