The Power of Spacing Out


Looking for that spark of inspiration to take you from bland to brilliant? You might try turning off the technology, taking a moment (or a day) to do nothing at all, and see what your brain can do.

Our telephones, once devices "locked" firmly to the wall or counter by a cord and used purely for placing a call, have become much more complex and all consuming. We now depend on them for reading daily news, getting directions, providing entertainment, and socializing. 

Having such a powerful device in the palm of our hand may come at a cost, however. Having “nothing to do” used to be a common part of everyday life, but smartphones have turned boredom into a rarity. Whether it’s an article to read, Instagram photos to look at, or a game to play, our minds are constantly stimulated by devices.

Although, we still don’t fully understand the implications of this new phenomenon —sometimes referred to as hyperconnectivity—many believe that the lack of “downtime for our brains” is potentially detrimental, especially when it comes to creativity and thoughtfulness.

In her book, "Wanderlust: A History of Walking," Rebecca Solnit writes,

…the rhetoric of efficiency around these technologies suggests that what cannot be quantified cannot be valued—that that vast array of pleasures which fall into the category of doing nothing in particular, of woolgathering, cloud-gazing, wandering, window-shopping, are nothing but voids to be filled by something more definite, more production, or faster-paced…I like walking because it is slow, and I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour. If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought or thoughtfulness.”

In an attempt to slow the speed of this technological takeover, the host of WNYC’s New Tech City podcast, Manoush Zomorodi, recently asked listeners to reclaim what she termed as the “Lost Art of Spacing Out” through a 6-day challenge called Bored to Brilliant, conducted by New Tech City.

Jamie McKillop for Well and Good and WNYC explains how it works and shares some of Zomorodi’s insights;

The week-long campaign consisted of seven daily tasks that essentially nudge you towards more tech-free moments of deliberate boredom, like keeping your phone in your pocket while walking down the street or watching a pot of water come to a boil. Close to 20,000 people participated, and the New Tech City team was able to collect data and personal anecdotes from about half of them.”

When Zomorodi was asked to share what she felt was the biggest impact from the Bored to Brilliant Challenge, she responded;

One woman told us she tried really hard to delete Facebook off of her phone and she was so disappointed that she couldn’t do it, but she wants to work on it. Others who deleted Twitter described feelings of lightness and freedom and said that they couldn’t go back to it. One said she felt like it made her marriage stronger. Hey, we’re not saying technology is bad, but it’s about making sure you’re in control of it instead of it being in control of you.”

This particular experiment may not have been scientific in the traditional sense, but research shows the significant benefits of ”doing nothing” and that daydreaming can be quite the opposite. One such study out of The University of British Columbia found that our brains are quite active during our daydreams. 

Science Daily ... 

…finds that activity in numerous brain regions increases when our minds wander. It also finds that brain areas associated with complex problem-solving—previously thought to go dormant when we daydream—are in fact highly active during these episodes.”

While Western culture (and the U.S. in particular) has a somewhat negative outlook on spacing out—deeming idleness as unproductive or lazy—artists and creative types (think Mad Men’s Don Draper) have long understood the importance of such passive practices as lying on a couch while staring off into space.

Fortunately, science is quickly catching up with this line of thinking. According to Andrew Smart, author of "Autopilot: The Art & Science of Doing Nothing," the default mode network of our brain becomes more organized and engaged in idleness. This concept, which has been backed by neuroscience, confirms that our brains have an autopilot mode, much like that of an airplane. As Smart explained in an interview with Forbes, 

The autopilot knows where you really want to go, and what you really want to do. But the only way to find out what your autopilot knows is to stop flying the plane and let your autopilot guide you.”



Read all articles by Juniper Briggs 


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