Monday, December 24, 2007

Keeping Silence

With everyone clamoring to cash in on Christmas1, it is difficult to shut out the noise long enough to reflect on the real meaning of this silent night.

Last month's issue of The Atlantic featured an insightful article by Walter Kirn on multitasking and how it is driving us to distraction:

Through a variety of experiments, many using functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure brain activity, [scientists have] torn the mask off multitasking and revealed its true face, which is blank and pale and drawn.

Multitasking messes with the brain in several ways. At the most basic level, the mental balancing acts that it requires—the constant switching and pivoting—energize regions of the brain that specialize in visual processing and physical coordination and simultaneously appear to shortchange some of the higher areas related to memory and learning. We concentrate on the act of concentration at the expense of whatever it is that we’re supposed to be concentrating on.

What does this mean in practice? Consider a recent experiment at UCLA, where researchers asked a group of 20-somethings to sort index cards in two trials, once in silence and once while simultaneously listening for specific tones in a series of randomly presented sounds. The subjects’ brains coped with the additional task by shifting responsibility from the hippocampus—which stores and recalls information—to the striatum, which takes care of rote, repetitive activities. Thanks to this switch, the subjects managed to sort the cards just as well with the musical distraction—but they had a much harder time remembering what, exactly, they’d been sorting once the experiment was over.

The lack of silence robs us of the ability to be fully present to the Here and Now. To know something instead of simply touching and releasing.

Even worse, certain studies find that multitasking boosts the level of stress-related hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline and wears down our systems through biochemical friction, prematurely aging us. In the short term, the confusion, fatigue, and chaos merely hamper our ability to focus and analyze, but in the long term, they may cause it to atrophy.

The next generation, presumably, is the hardest-hit. They’re the ones way out there on the cutting edge of the multitasking revolution, texting and instant messaging each other while they download music to their iPod and update their Facebook page and complete a homework assignment and keep an eye on the episode of The Hills flickering on a nearby television. (A recent study from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 53 percent of students in grades seven through 12 report consuming some other form of media while watching television; 58 percent multitask while reading; 62 percent while using the computer; and 63 percent while listening to music. “I get bored if it’s not all going at once,” said a 17-year-old quoted in the study.) They’re the ones whose still-maturing brains are being shaped to process information rather than understand or even remember it.

This is the great irony of multitasking—that its overall goal, getting more done in less time, turns out to be chimerical. In reality, multitasking slows our thinking. It forces us to chop competing tasks into pieces, set them in different piles, then hunt for the pile we’re interested in, pick up its pieces, review the rules for putting the pieces back together, and then attempt to do so, often quite awkwardly. (Fact, and one more reason the bubble will pop: A brain attempting to perform two tasks simultaneously will, because of all the back-and-forth stress, exhibit a substantial lag in information processing.)

Productive? Efficient? More like running up and down a beach repairing a row of sand castles as the tide comes rolling in and the rain comes pouring down.

The next point is a bit off the main topic of the post, but not the topic of this blog: how we think about ourselves—the model we pattern ourselves after—is a big part of the reason we find ourselves in a ceaseless frenzy of activity:

Multitasking, a definition: “The attempt by human beings to operate like computers, often done with the assistance of computers.”

...In the days of rudimentary chemistry, the mind was thought to be a beaker of swirling volatile essences. Then came classical physical mechanics, and the mind was regarded as a clocklike thing, with springs and wheels. Then it was steam-driven, maybe. A combustion chamber. Then came electricity and Freud, and it was a dynamo of polarized energies—the id charged one way, the superego the other.

Now, in the heyday of the microchip, the brain is a computer. A CPU.

Except that it’s not a CPU. It’s whatever that thing is that’s driven to misconstrue itself—over and over, century after century—as a prototype, rendered in all-too- vulnerable tissue, of our latest marvel of technology.

Funny how when we think of ourselves as a thing, we truly come to acquire the attributes of that thing.2 There is a point to the regnant thinking of our elites that emphasizes the need for role models: but what if our role model is a computer?

Recovering the Silence

As Josef Pieper wrote, leisure is the basis of culture. Only by taking time to withdraw from the activities of the world can we reflect on it and ourselves and see the direction we need to our lives to point. Pieper writes that the church (building) is to space what the sabbath rest is to time.

It seems particularly a problem up in New England where I live that people have deficient notion of the sacredness of the church (though this trend is growing elsewhere). A Protestant friend back in New York would often pray in a Catholic church because, he said, there was a silence there not present in other churches. (Yes, the silence follows on a Presence. Has an unusual feeling of "silence" ever alerted you to being watched?) Catholics in this part of the country have trouble appreciating that their quotidian conversations belong outside the Church.3 A silence should reign that allows us to hear our Lord's "still, small voice."

Only if we recover the silence, can we "hear" the Presence come in our flesh:

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
and with fear and trembling stand;
ponder nothing earthly minded,
for with blessing in his hand
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
our full homage to demand.

(Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence, a fifth-century hymn from the Liturgy of Saint James, translated into English by Gerald Moultrie in 1864)


1. Or maybe all the pre-Christmas clamor is secretly a financial penalty imposed on those who fail to recognize that Christmas begins on the 25th, along with the "after-Christmas" sales? One has to wonder how long we can make the "Christmas" season without diluting it to meaninglessness—a place in western NH had its Christmas lights up before Halloween (I'm ashamed to say it was a Catholic shrine—this diocese is particularly unhealthy). One hears "Christmas" songs by former Beatles and wonders how far we can distance Christmas from its fundamental meaning before it loses all meaning: how long can we go on being excited about being excited about... something?

2. Walker Percy writes about the transparency and malleability of the self in The Message in the Bottle.

3. Granted, there is still some notion that the church is sacred space, but it is compromised. The old people who after Mass shout the rosary across the Church to each other likewise detract from the silence—admittedly they are at least praying, though it is praying publicly what (unlike like the Liturgy of the Hours or the Mass) isn't a public prayer. Back at St. Leo's in Fairfax, Virginia, the rosary group very considerately withdrew to a small section of the church to allow others elsewhere to continue their personal prayer in silence.

Walter Kirn, "The Autumn of the Multitaskers" The Atlantic (November 2007). Subscription required for full-text access.

Josef Pieper, Leisure the Basis of Culture

1 comment:

CPKS said...

A miscellany of related but jumbled thoughts:

Performing a multitude of rote tasks - or perhaps sub-tasks - can in fact create a kind of mental silence. The absence of specific memory may indicate an absence of a certain kind of reflective thought, but it need not indicate a lack of awareness; indeed, the lack of fact-manufacturing concept-comparing thought may leave the mind free to encounter reality more directly. Some monks of my acquaintance have suggested that the prayer of the rosary, occupying the fingers, the linguistic mechanics and the imagination as the fingers work the beads, the lips repeat the rote prayers, and the imagination follows the mysteries, actually free the intellect to a kind of listening that is only possible when the lower functions are kept occupied - and hence, in a way, silent - on their lower-order tasks.

And on silence: I believe that the composer Anton von Webern said "Silence is the music of God."