Automate the brain?

Yesterday I listened to the end of a radio program about the brain, where a neurologist (or something) with excitement told the interviewer about how the brain works. He said that the brain wants new challenges every day and that we therefore ought to train ourselves to do more and more things automatically, so that we can think about stuff while we do them – solving problems, thinking about what to do in the coming weekend etc.

Channel one on Swedish national radio (called P1) publishes a lot of its programs online – unfortunately in the Real Audio format, which makes my friend Malte furious – but this program hasn’t been published yet. I will listen to the entire program when they do.

Anyway, my reaction was that it was a careless thing to say. Sure, the brain wants some friction every day, but I see two dangers with this. First and foremost, it is important to be attentive to when the brain starts to get satiated. Since I began blogging, I’ve done a lot of reading with the intention to blog about it, which really boosts your understanding (this is what I mean by cognitive blogging; see here). But this, on the other hand, is very demanding and I often very distinctively detect when my brain has had enough. Then it’s important to let it relax. I’m sure the neurologist didn’t mean to imply that you should not let your brain relax every once in a while, but he didn’t say so.

The other thing that bugs me with what he says is that it suggests that you should learn to ignore everyday things by doing them automatically. Striving to do more and more things by automation might turn you into a robot – not because you do things as if programmed, but because you ignore reality in favor of engaging in thoughts. People today are too ignoring of the world around them as it is. What we need is to pay more attention to “the now”, to the present moment. As one with an interest in Zen, I think this is one of the most important things to learn from that philosophy.

This in turn brings me to one of several – and I mean several – book recommendations sent to me by my friend Cliff, namely Zen and the Brain, by neurologist James Austin. The book is about ... well, Zen and the brain, like for example what the neurological effects of mediation are. Cliff also pointed me to two chapters from this book that are available online: Where does Zen think it’s coming from? – and First Zen-Brain Mondo. (I will probably return to this subject after listening to the entire radio program.)

The above was posted to my personal weblog on August 20, 2002. My name is Peter Lindberg and I am a thirtysomething software developer and dad living in Stockholm, Sweden. Here, you’ll find posts in English and Swedish about whatever happens to interest me for the moment.


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