Much to do with nothing II

NothingLakeWe’re lucky if we have time to do nothing. It means we don’t have to worry about finding food, shelter, work. We’re even luckier if we know how to do nothing well. It means we have an ability to sit back and appreciate our surroundings, allow them to take us to thought spaces never visited before.

In “Much to do with nothing I“, I posted a video of Ohio landscape, mid-morning after a stormy night. The birds were busy, the wind was rolling, the natural world was breathing in and out. A bumblebee working, grasses in gentle sway, the sound of a distant truck — a human imposition on a nearly still landscape full of life. Waiting. Watching. Judging. Accepting. Not really sure which one. I did nothing but coexist in this space for about four minutes, which felt long because I don’t often do nothing. Even though I don’t necessarily have to worry about basic needs, I tend to fill up my day with to-do lists. Four silent minutes had a lot to say.

In the time of quarantine, there were many advices on how to spend the extra time whether it was alone, with family, with your trace circle of friends. Lots of ideas on crafts, cooking, and quitting bad habits. There were less advices on how to enjoy the nothing. Not to say there weren’t any; some great pieces came out, especially here (with Jenny Odell, author of How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy), here (Celeste Headlee on NPR, author of Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving), and here (Larry’s David’s NY Times piece).

As society creeps its way back to a normal, more and more individuals are beginning to actively work on keeping nothing in their lives. There’s many perspectives about why doing nothing is good for you. Here are my top four, in no particular order.

  1. Cells need a break. Our sensing cells, those we use for perception, fire at baseline levels until a stimulus excites them. Then it’s off to the races with the responsive cells firing through a burst of activity to let our mind and brain know something’s there. But there are two effects worth noting. First, as soon as a stimulus that excites a cell is removed, the cell needs to recover and stops firing completely for a short time before returning to its baseline firing rate. It’s as if the cell just ran a sprint and needs to recover by standing still for a few seconds. Second, if a stimulus is presented to the same sensing cell, say the picture of a tree to a visual cell, for a prolonged period of time without interference (including a simple blink) the cell will stop responding to the stimulus as if it isn’t there any longer. The cell adapts to the stimulus and, essentially, it’s no longer perceived.  You might experience the same thing if you are able to stare at the same stimulus for a long period– the processing becomes garbled. For me, this means that taking a break from all of my internal mental processing gives my cells a chance to rest. They don’t have to work for a while and, when I decide to rev back into doing something, they will be ready. This point might miss the mark a little on just how great doing nothing is because essentially the doing nothing allows us to do the something later on a whole lot better. But there is some implicit symmetry between how cells behave, including their need for a rest because of their fatiguability, and why doing nothing can be good for us. It offers a window into the need to do nothing at a basic physiological level.
  2. In visual art, negative space is the nothing that brings meaning to the something. Positive space usually gets all the glory because it is the subject of interest: the barn in the field, the face of the mother, the fruit in the bowl. But this glory can only be garnered when the positive space is surrounded by its faithful friend, negative space. Negative space is the open spaces around the primary subject of the work: the sky above the treeline, the water around the boat, the blank wall to right of the face. Sometimes there is a fluidity where positive and negative space can be ambiguous, lending a bi-stability to images. Our personal interests, or endogenous attentional processes (our mind’s internal attention drivers), cue into specific stimuli based on what we find appealing or important– the things that carry most weight or have highest value to us. Negative space for one person may be the positive space for another. It doesn’t matter so much what we find to be positive and negative for the discussion here, only that we recognize that negative space–the nothing part– is critical to processing the something part. Something can only be something when it is allowed to stand apart from the nothing. Here again it is underscored that nothing is critical for something, similar in sentiment to the first point, but the nothing in this case amounts to a perceptual experience, not a physiological need to rest.
  3. Doing nothing is great for physical health. Meditation lowers heart rate, respiratory rate, blood pressure; meditation and prayer even help maintain episodic memory in older adults (Lekhak et al, 2020). There’s the “vacation effect”, which positively influences stress response, immune function, and metabolism. And, there is “slow television”, which marries our addiction to screens with the do nothing approach. Slow TV hasn’t exploded like I thought it might, but the next time you’re looking for something to escape to on the tube, give it a try. Maybe even with where it all began, a televised 7 hour train trip to Bergen. This point pushes a little further into the question of what is it to do nothing. I had trouble finding a research study on the benefits of doing nothing at all. Not surprising because it’s not so meaningful to bring research participants in and evaluate them on “doing nothing”. There’s no behavioral trait to measure when doing nothing. There’s physiological markers like breathing and blood pumping and there’s neural activity using imaging methods. But still, controlling what “doing nothing” means across individuals is tough. So, researchers ask their participants to do close to nothing like mediation, prayer, or visualization. But we can take the beneficial effects of remaining still, even if we are watching or thinking or meditating, as indicators of how much nothing can really be something good for us. This is another physiological based benefit, one at a systems level rather than a cellular one.
  4. Meta cognition: Doing nothing allows space for your subconscious to expand, ultimately boosting your creativity. When distracted, our mind jumps to the most obvious answers. Cells that fire together wire together so, when pressed, the most immediate connections prevail: cats and dogs, birds and chirp, public speaking and fear, personal interaction and worry are all dyads that will link up readily because they are commonly paired (by us, by society). But if we have an opportunity to take some time to allow for further associations to be made, we can expand our consideration, our opinions, our associations. Cats and birds may be considered together, dogs can be paired with personal interaction, fear might sit more closely with worry, and public speaking could align with chirp. But we can’t make these looser associations without effort, without reflection, without taking the time to do so. This becomes even more meaningful when we are working to do important work like modify personal behaviors, push forward scientific discovery, represent an emotion using abstract art. We all know, at some level, the best things take time. The trick is to understand empty time as a true commodity that does well to expand our being. This benefit sits beyond physiology and perception, one that yields a whole that is larger than the sum of its parts.

Maybe these points speak to you or maybe there’s an entirely different set of considerations empowering you to do nothing.

Grabbing curbside lunch the other day, a chalk board said “Don’t go back to normal, go back to better”. I choose to think of the term “better” as meaning “more nothing”. It’s nearly clear we never spent enough time with the nothing before global pandemic, and perhaps we’ve been ambivalent about the nothing during forced quarantine. Going forward, my to-do lists will include a few hours of nothing during which, I bet, the best something is most likely to happen in my day.


Author: Jennifer Stevens

I am a professor and live in Williamsburg, VA (USA).

One thought on “Much to do with nothing II”

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