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The Tinkered Mind
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January 7th, 2021
Our problem isn’t distraction, it’s a lack of fascination. Distraction is the scapegoat, the pervasive and obvious culprit for our shallow lives. The logic goes that if there weren’t so many distractions, then I’d finally be ale to sit down and concentrate for once.
It’s a bit like saying: if unhealthy food weren’t so cheap and delicious, then maybe everyone’s health would be better. And this is true. If a healthy diet were the only option then many people’s bodies would grow healthier rather quickly. But is the analogy tight enough so as to imply that all absence of distraction would result in deep, meaningful focus? Probably not: food is a physical necessity, the absence of which creates some very real motivation. Deep focus, on the other hand, has no clear and present biological motivation underpinning it’s necessity, and so perhaps, deep focus isn’t a necessity. At least not to physically live.
For those who have been rigorously trained away from their own deadened curiosity, an abundance of free time absent of distraction may simply lead to nothing happening - except of course the search for distraction. Sadly, it seems, this is how many retirements are spent. How many retirement homes have all their rooms equipped with the sedative distraction of a TV? How is it that some people stay very active cognitively and physically right up until their last long years of life, and yet others become a crippled shell of themselves? It’s easy to slough off the difference into the complex field of genetics and be done with it. But as with most instances when such a cognitive convenience is employed, this relies on an ignorance of genetics in order gloss over any problems in such logic.
Many problems, especially those regarding health, have very long antecedents. The foundation of such problems accrue slowly and surely far before they are detectable. And of course, once detectable, it’s often dangerously late in the game.
Humans are particularly bad with such problems that pull from long roots tapped back in time. We’re really good at the quickly arising problem, like a baseball that’s suddenly flying toward our face. We duck. But with the problem stretched out over a great span of time, we have enormous trouble seeing the connection between what we do now, and what life will be like way down the road.
Such is the eulogy for most curiosity. By the time many people finally get some time to pursue their own interests by way of retirement functioning as a freedom from uninteresting work, the curiosity of many people is all but a memory. Curiosity needs to be exercised just like a muscle or it’ll atrophy, just like a muscle. And for those who already have an impaired curiosity due to the rigorous flogging of mind-numbing institutions like the 7th grade, any exercise of curiosity can feel a bit, forced.
This juxtaposes the components of the problem nicely with a question: can curiosity be forced?
The natural answer is no, of course not. But what exactly would this look like if we tried anyway? Often there’s a list of things we are curious about but which we’re just too lazy to investigate. An old desire to learn the piano, or investigate machine learning, or what it’d be like to write a novel. What’s the next step after admitting the existence of such an old and stale list of curiosities? Getting to work, of course. And suddenly the requirement of effort feels counter to the spirit of curiosity. That’s not what it felt like to be a kid. Curiosity is supposed to be a bit like play, right? Unfortunately not when curiosity has gone so long without use. Work is required to reconnect to the powers of childhood.
Fascination has to be forced. This is another uncomfortable idea signalling dissonance between the parts we think we understand. Long disuse of innate qualities creates a barrier to entry. If the desire is to become a highly self-motivated curious person, then it’s going to require some work for that to be a natural state of being. Unless of course a person has had the rare luck and the strange luck of continuing the curiosity of childhood onward without damage from the institutions of society.
We tend to associate these things - curiosity, fascination, inspiration, as fleeting, as rare kind of gifts, bestowed from unknown places, even high places, like muses or divine origins. But fact is they are just like happiness, or peace of mind: they are always available. They exist as operations of the mind, and if we feel them ever then it means we carry around the machinery for these operations wherever we go. Meaning further, we can activate this machinery whenever we want, if only we figure out where the controls are.
As with many things, the answers are closer than we realize. They just require a bit of work to see or grasp. And work - another concept tainted by societal institutions - often feels like something forced, something anathema to our being. But again, this is an insidious gift of civilization’s modern machinery. That thing we did as kids, that thing called ‘play’, that was actually work. It just didn’t feel like it because we weren’t forced. But now having been forced away from the sort of work we may have been naturally drawn too, it feels a bit forced and a bit like work to get back to those gifts of childhood.