Zoning Out. (or, a little neuroscience lesson…)

zoning outLiz Fraser, 6th November 2009.

So I’m walking past Fopp – the independent music store that also sells fantastically cheap but not shit at all books and DVDs, in case you are unfortunate enough not to have such an establishment where you live – and I suddenly think, ‘what I am doing, walking past this independent music store that also sells fantastically cheap but not shit at all books and DVDs? It’s Autumn. It’s the time for slowing down, for snuggling under a duvet and reading and watching all the books and films you’ve been saving up all summer, while listening to some new soul-enriching music. Go in, woman, go in and stock up for the dark evenings to come!’

            So in I go. Into the pulsing Emporium of wintery leisure-time joy. Ten minutes later I am paying, and the sexy, eye-liner-heavy chick behind the counter stops mid-scan, and glances up at me. She wants a proper look at who, just who, puts into their basket The Gossip, Kasabian, Katy Perry, Bach cello Suites, The Essential Alan Coren (an impulse buy, I confess), and DVDs including The Constant Gardener, The Machinist, Michael McIntyre….and Bod and The Flumps.

            There’s a pause, and in a moment of desperation I mumble ‘For my kids…’ pointing at Bod and The Flumps, but more truthfully meaning the Katy Perry. She seems satisfied and pops them all in a bag.

            Now then, dear reader, I have a request: if you should ever happen upon a DVD copy of Bod or the Flumps in a shop, car boot sale or bin, I urge you to get one. No, get two. Because whether or not you grew up with them, whether or not you recall perching on a beige sofa back in 1978 waiting with baited breath for the announcer to say ‘And now it’s time for our See-Saw programmes for younger viewers’ (yay!!) they are a round window into a lost time – a time when Time itself operated on a completely different level.

            A time when Things. Went. Slow. Ly.

            And it’s a time we’d do well to pay a visit to every now and again.
It’s almost a cliché to say ‘we live in a fast age’, but oh boy, do we ever?! Most of us operate at an average speed set somewhere between hyper and supersonic for most of the day, and there is rarely a gap of more than three minutes within that crazy day where nothing – and I mean nothing – requires our brains to carry on multi-tasking and zipping about like mercury. For example, it is not uncommon at all for me to be researching a feature while speaking to my agent on the land line and receiving several texts on my mobile, all at the same time. Meanwhile three emails come in that need replies within the next minute, someone makes a comment on my Facebook status update that just begs a pithy response, and the moment I hang up with my agent, my mobile rings. While taking that call I unload the dishwasher and put away yesterday’s laundry, before running downstairs to stop tonight’s dinner from burning on the stove and put six batteries into the charger. And all this before 10am, and after the school run.

            In the space of five minutes, in other words, I can do more than someone twenty years ago would have got done in a day. And I am one of millions and millions living like this – in fact, compared with many I’m pretty much a lazy bum.

Where all this doing, doing, doing concerns me, is the effect it is having on our children. As those of you who’ve read any of my books will know (and if you haven’t, where have you been??!) I am a passionate believer in the importance of doing NOTHING. Of quiet, stillness, empty space and mental PAUSE.

            In A Spoonful of Sugar I wrote about the increasing problem of ‘pond-skater minds’, and how zipping about from fact to fact online, skim-reading, texting, cut-and-pasting, channel-hopping and choosing from menus offered in a computer-based system rather than using the mind to come up with its own solutions and ideas, is having a detrimental effect on kids, who can no longer think for themselves or concentrate on anything for more than a few seconds. (pages 211 – 214, if you have a copy…If you don’t, let me make this real easy for you: click this link and then hit ‘buy’! http://www.amazon.co.uk/Spoonful-Sugar-Liz-Fraser/dp/0007284772/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1257601246&sr=1-1. I’m too kind.)

And now it seems that there’s more scientific evidence to back me up. Jonathan Schooler, a psychologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, has been studying so-called ‘mind-wandering’, ie when your brain zips off the task at had to think about something else for a while. He and his colleagues have identified two types: when you’re aware that your mind has wandered, and when you’re not. This latter type is known as ‘zoning out’, and, according to his research and that of others, this ‘zoning out’, while having some down-sides such as not remembering what you’re supposed to be reading (you with me here? Not zoned out yet?) can also be beneficial. In an fMRI study (you know, the ones you’ve seen on the telly where regions of the brain that are active show up in different colours on the screen. It’s very groovy) Schooler and his colleagues found that two very important control systems in the brain are more active during zoning out. He proposes that when we don’t realise our minds are wandering, we may be able to think most deeply about the big picture.

This is what you or I might call the old ‘stop thinking about it and it’ll come to you’ theory. Well, perhaps it has a scientific basis after all. John Kounios of Drexel University and his colleagues have done brain scans that capture that Eureka moment when people suddenly figure out how to solve a word puzzle. Many of the regions that become active during those creative flashes belong to the same control systems mentioned above.

Pretty cool and fascinating, huh?

So what of Bod? Well, I sat my guinea pigs down together last week, and pressed play. They waited. Nothing for a second or two. They look bored. Aha! Hang on – here comes Bod. He’s doing something. He’s walking towards the viewer. This is good. We have action. But oh dear, he’s still walking towards us, and it’s been at least two seconds. Probably more like three or even four. Why is he still walking? We’ve seen that. Now we want to see something else. Phew, here comes Aunt Flo to save the day, top-knot in place. Now something’s going to happen! But no – she is just walking too, this time to the left and with a very silly walk indeed.  On she goes, walking and walking. One second, two seconds, three seconds. Five seconds? Of walking? Are they kidding?

            Now, my kids watch much, much less television than most (probably an hour or two a week on average, and there’s no channel-hopping going on. Meany, meany mummy) and they have a pretty impressive concentration span. But this was too much even for them. This was a whole other level of slowness altogether. This was like watching through treacle. This was almost painfully slow.

            It’s serious food for thought, and munch on it we must. These slowly-does-it programmes are what we watched as kids, because this – and Pigeon Street, Fingermouse, Playschool, Mr Ben and co – was all there was! It didn’t seem slow to us. It was a story, on television, and things moved and talked, and it was magical. We loved it! And then off we went in our Bakelite glasses and hand-me-down dungarees to build a rocket out of toilet rolls. Ahhh, the ‘70s.  
When I compare this with the flick, flick, flick of the screen watching most kids’ TV today, where shots are generally no longer than one second and there’s a rainbow of bright colours in every scene and zappy music to boot, I just get tired. It’s fun to watch it, but it literally tires me out. It’s not a rest – it’s an assault on all my senses. And why should kids be all that different?

We went to Scotland at half term. After a truly hideous and unhealthily stressful year, I took time to walk for several hours a day in the mountains. Just me, the air, and the rhythmic trudge , trudge, trudge of my feet. During those hours of walking and walking, something very strange happened: all the fug in my head cleared. Ideas came to me that had been illusive for months, despite my trying and trying to reach them. Problems sorted themselves out and the mess of a million thoughts and confusions crystallised into order, and clarity. I came back with the best book idea I’ve had for a long time, and a brain that felt like it’d had a good old rest.

            We need to make very sure that our children, who are in the most inventive, creative, imagination-rich stages of their lives, have as much opportunity to think freely, to switch OFF and to let their minds roam as possible. There’s plenty of time to be knotted and busy and manic and FAST when they’re grown up and juggling all that life throws at them. But for now they need not only mental stimulation, but also mental QUIET.

            Switch it off. Put it away, and let them STOP for a while. It’ll do them a lot of good.


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