headshot of George Dinwiddie with books he's written

iDIA Computing Newsletter

November 2023

Rest is Also Important

I talk a lot about challenging your assumptions, identifying your cognitive biases, and altering your thought patterns to enable better choices in the future. This is, of course, hard work. The reason we, as a species, are prone to cognitive biases is that they are easy. Thinking is hard work, expensive in both energy and time. It's much easier to quickly match a pattern in our heads and follow the script we've used with that pattern in the past. Humans are really good at pattern matching. We're so good at it that we can find patterns in truly random data.

The good news is that by challenging our assumptions and thinking more broadly we can create new scripts for new patterns we've noticed. These enlarge our repertoire of less-expensive behaviors. That's what learning is all about.

The bad news is that it also tires us out, and we tend to become less effective when we're tired. We can't challenge every assumption each time we depend on it. We can't afford to challenge any particular assumption on a daily basis. We need to take breaks from this work, too, to rest both our minds and our emotions. It's OK to rely on our repertoire of scripts most of the time, as long as we spend some time along the way to refine them and to develop new ones.

Perhaps the safest way of retreating to familiar patterns of interpersonal behavior is when spending time with family and friends. In the comfortable confines of familiar interactions we've likely built interlocking patterns with each other's normal behavior, resulting in a system where everyone has an idea of their expected roles in that context. We can go with the flow of expected patterns of behavior, staying within the confines of past patterns.

That, of course, doesn't guarantee that the interaction of those roles are healthy. Family therapists wouldn't exist if that were the case. But in a stable social environment, we don't need to try to initiate change on a daily basis. Such social systems resist change, and trying to change frequently would likely frustrate us. Perhaps it's enough, most of the time, to live in the moment, observing what happens around us, and within us, to be remembered some time in the future when we've got the energy for critical thinking.

Perhaps it's even safer to spend some time that's less interpersonally focused. There are other activities that support going with the flow and living in the moment.

For me, one of those activities is sailing. Setting the sails to suit the current wind and the course of the boat, and sailing feels like flying. The sensations in my body are augmented by the power of the wind, and the rhythm of the waves.

Another activity is listening to music. I love music, but I'm not a musician. When I listen to music I love, I'm not tempted to break it into component parts and analyze it. Instead, like in sailing, I go with the flow. The power of the music seems to flow through my body, carrying me along with the rhythm and power much like the feeling of sailing.

When we're resting our brains, we're not just saving energy. We're also opening ourselves up for serendipitous observations and insights. This is an oblique way of learning, or, at least, of setting a foundation for learning. Sometimes it's good to let our brains freewheel without any contemporaneous judgment of the thoughts. It's good to let our thoughts run through open fields just for the fun of it.

/signed/ George

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