The Challenge of Being Science

One of my husband’s favorite reminders of his culture versus mine is that the Spanish work to live, while Americans live to work.  I cannot really argue the point with him.  It’s true.  We Americans are a culture of doers.  And in such a culture, that harmless Monday morning question between colleagues – “So, what did you do this weekend?” – takes on a slightly more competitive and sinister meaning.  As one old proverb states, idle hands are the Devil’s playthings.

loiter

But what about loafing?  Daydreaming?  Being lazy as my dad used to chide me?  It seems that recent studies are showing that downtime from doing boosts creativity.  And creativity is absolutely necessary for good science.  A group of researchers at Leiden University found that meditation helped people come up with creative solutions to experimental problems, even when people didn’t really have much experience meditating.  In the experiment, people meditated for just 25 minutes – practicing either open monitoring meditation, letting their minds wander and being receptive to thoughts and sensations in the moment, or focused attention meditation, where individuals concentrated on a particular thought or object.  Open monitoring meditation assisted with divergent thinking, or coming up with multiple solutions to a given problem; focused attention meditation had no effect.   Chilling out in the name of creativity backed by science.  Breathe in.. 2..3..4.. Breathe out.. 2.. 3.. 4..

Being bored has its creative upside too.  I could have told you that by age 10.  I spent a lot of boring snowy no-school days making artwork or writing stories after a couple hours sledding or skating.  Scientists at Penn State looking into why boredom is good for creativity found that people get creative because they’re bored.  In the study, people watched video clips that influenced them to feel relaxed, bored, elated, or distressed.  Then the researchers gave people three words and asked them to come up with a fourth that linked the first three words together.  The bored study participants did the best at this convergent thinking task to find a single, correct solution to a problem.

So why the focus on being?  It is a topic that came up in recent conversations with a friend of mine.  We were talking about how the mad rush to produce as a non-tenured assistant professor leaves me feeling empty and ultimately unmotivated.  However, over the holiday break I didn’t work.  Well, okay I did about 4 hours worth of work over a 2 week period in reviewing graduate applications for our department.  But back to the no-work.  I hung out with my husband.  I watched Spanish TV without subtitles – they have some very interesting talk shows that skewer politicians and make fun of dating.  Pequeño Nicolás!  I drank good wine and ate amazing bread and cheese.  I connected with real people in a non-work context – family members and new friends.  I enjoyed being.  For the first few days, I was chomping at the bit to do stuff.  Anything.  By the end, I was extremely reluctant to come back to the United States and jump back into work.  I was relaxed, maybe a little bored, and my creativity battery felt recharged.

This spring term, I have been given an opportunity.  A semester without classroom teaching.  In the past I’ve funneled my creativity into student learning but now I need to focus it into my research program – research, grant writing, and article publishing.  So now, as my friend reminded me, the challenge is to continue this relaxed feeling while forging ahead productively.

References:

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About ljshaffer

I am an ecological anthropologist. I work with people living in southern Mozambique on issues of indigenous knowledge, responses and adaptation to environmental change. I spend a lot of time talking about elephants, crops, conservation, and sustainability.

Posted on January 19, 2015, in career, life, research and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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