Who decides what you think?

How is everyone getting on with those resolutions then? (Or are you, like me, waiting for spring for your rush of self-improvement?) We’re only one month deep into 2024 but good intentions can begin to slip. Here in Sweden, it is the season for Earth’s most divine bun – the semla – a sweet, fluffy cardamom bread roll, filled with almond paste and cream. Delicious, but not terribly healthy. The internet tells me life is most sustainably healthy when lived in an 80/20 split, 80% of the time doing what’s best for you and the other 20%… Eating a semla and scrolling on Instagram, I suppose? That’s how I’m taking it anyway.

Last month The Guardian ran a digital detox plan; an email programme for how to de-programme habitual screen-overuse. We seem to have reached a general consensus that being on your phone is bad, a waste of time, something that makes us depressed and unsatisfied with our lives. My friend said to me the other day: “I’ve never met anyone who said: you know what, I really wish I could spend a lot more time on my phone”. 

The magic of our phones is that they are specially designed to manipulate our very human propensity to addiction. For example: the little red notification dot that comes up when you have a new comment or message in various social media platforms is designed with a very small delay, because you get a dopamine release when you notice it. There’s a more powerful effect with the short delay than if it just comes up immediately as the rest of the page content loads. It’s very clever. And kind of terrifying in a mind-manipulation sort of way. 

So this brings me to this month’s theme: why do we do the things we do..?

The thought police

As I write this, Elon Musk has just announced that the first Neuralink implant has been successfully installed in a human brain. In a post on X, Musk said Neuralink’s first product, Telepathy could “control your phone or computer, and through them almost any device, just by thinking”. So that’s, you know, happening. 

In the murky waters surrounding brain-integrated technology, thought-reading and behaviour-reading, neuropsychologist Simon McCarthy-Jones has published a book about freedom of thought, with the Orwellian title Freethinking: Protecting Freedom of Thought Amidst the New Battle for the Mind. His theories dive into the weird moral grey area of thought-policing, currently considered a fundamental human right by the UN, but almost impossible to define without us understanding the future technologies that could potentially threaten it. 

In an interview with Nautilus, McCarthy-Jones said:

“We have the ability to think things through. We’ve lost our sharp teeth and our claws. But what we’ve been given to survive in this world is thinking, and that’s a large part of what contributes to making us human.”

Where exactly does free thought leak into the world? Freedom of thought is also freedom to explore thoughts, count on our fingers, ponder and discuss unformed ideas, change our minds, and say something wrong. Psychology studies have shown that humans reach a more objectively true consensus when we “groupthink” as opposed to when we think alone. As our world increasingly moves online, and our digital discussion spaces are subject to greater criticism and shut-down, where is it safe to voice thoughts, and reach a group-think consensus? 

A Quiet Moment – Portrait of Lorena Lepori by Sarah Warda, 2023.

The majority of our time online, for most people, is spent consuming. We listen to podcasts, or music, read articles or social media posts, and watch YouTube essays. Some people hold the esteemed digital office of “content creators”, but even they will be spending most of their time online consuming too. Even when we’re not “actively” consuming (IE: with our eyes on a screen) we’re doing the dishes while listening to a podcast, or walking the dog with music in our ears. “Are these inputs helping us think?” McCarthy-Jones asks, “Or are we stopping ourselves thinking by importing other people’s thoughts, every hour of the day?

With a constant stream of ideas, opinions and aspirations fed into our brains, our autonomous capacity for thought is less reliable. Particularly when we don’t give ourselves an opportunity to think things through or discuss our ideas. Thinking takes effort, and as an animal, we’ve evolved to seek ways to conserve rather than expend energy. So if it’s easier to Google something than to think about it, that’s what we’ll do. McCarthy-Jones describes this as a “digital benzo” effect, that it calms our energy but also shuts down our full faculty at the same time. 

“The question becomes: How do we rediscover the joy of thinking? How do we enjoy the effort of thinking? Because if we don’t really want to think again, there’s no point in setting up a society that’s going to make us do something we don’t want to do, right?”

He suggests, in order to win back some autonomy over our thoughts, we need to do a combination of three things:

1) Remove external validation and thought. That means limiting social media, and reducing our daily “idea consumption“.  

2) Find an opportunity to groupthink. In order to gain a more objective view on ideas, hashing things out in an open-minded mixed group and having the space to say unformed ideas, be wrong and discuss without fear of shutdown is vital. 

3) Walk in silence. Studies have proven that walking at a steady pace is conducive to good brain health and innovative thinking. But the key is walking in silence – no podcasts or music to distract you. 

The joy of the journey

In January, I joined about 500 people from around the world in an online songwriting workshop with Adrianne Lenker. I’ve always admired her music – the blend of poetic, textural lyrics and swirling, complex guitar patterns, woven together with her soaring vocals – it’s almost hypnotic and folkloric. 

Without any formal music training, I’ve carried a little “I’m not a musician” rhetoric around with me for years. This is a very common jingle in the minds of music-makers. Musicianship can ascend to such altitudes, with elite education and institution – the upper echelons of musicians are considered geniuses. It seems to me like it stretches further with music than other artforms – we don’t consider eliteness in the same way with painting or dance or drama. And yet, music is ubiquitous. It’s in our headphones on the way to work, in our lullabies sung to our children, in our adverts between TV programmes, the score to films. It’s impossible to get away from. It’s also fundamental. We’re rhythmic creatures by nature: our heart beats, our breaths and blinks and steps all have a rhythm of their own. Our voices, accents and languages have their own special prosodic quality. Our bodies respond to music; and expressive actions like drumming, singing and dancing to music can have a healing effect on trauma. We’re hard-wired to be musical. So this limiting rhetoric around musicianship and who is allowed to be called a musician is almost ridiculous. 

One thing that affects this musical elitism is probably to do with how we’ve incorporated perfection and judgement into our consumption of music. Passively, we’ve allowed shows like The Voice to place the value of music on the end-performance, and the performer’s ability to produce a sound that replicates a studio-recorded performance. So when we are unable to do that ourselves, we open the trapdoor in our mind, and let the desire to create and be musical drop into the depths. 

In our first lecture with Adrianne, as if she could read our minds and sense our discomfort with placing ourselves in a “musician” role, she asked: 

“What do you want out of writing songs? To me it’s always been that I just want to be nourished by the songs themselves. The joy is in that journey, that work. What everybody else thinks is a side note. It’s not really my business. The most important thing is that you build something that you can return to, and it will bring you into that connection. It will keep nourishing you for the rest of your life. It can never be taken away from you. Songs are beautiful things that get encapsulated in such a way that they become infinite. Whatever you put into them, they will give back to you.”

Adrianne’s approach of turning our modern concept of songwriting on its head goes beyond music and can be applied in all areas of life. We are so often drawn to do things in order to reach an outcome – things like prestige, originality or safety. We make five-year plans, hold a job down to earn money in order to buy things, make something in the hope to receive validation, or go for a run to lose weight. What about if we did things not for what they result in, but because the act of doing them nourishes our lives? 

Her guidance was to get in touch with the intuitive compass – the guiding voice that tells you something feels right. This inner voice is not the same as the inner judge – the one that tells you whether something is “good” or not. The two have to be separated to discover what it is you need to fulfil yourself creatively. Ultimately, you can’t please everyone; but if you understand your intuitive compass, and quiet the learned opinions and internalised judging voices, you can please yourself.

“When you are looking at it holistically, and generally nurturing the things you need to nurture, you’ll open up into curiosity.”

By Thomas Pfau

To George Herbert

Aspiration’s breath, millennial trance,

two-pointed ladder propped in a void;

busy buzzard claws, verbs on a leash,

slow blush of brain damage on a plate.

Stunned journey of dust. A holey sock.

Grind of an afternoon’s axles, abandoned

juggernaut in a field; inhabited interval

with a pencil stub, curved strips of silence:

postbox for the inner ear. Tarantula’s footstep,

a weight of light: inadvertent sky in the skull.

Wishbone couture: promiscuous secret,

peepshow in the street. Paraphrase of planets.

Ocean in a tablespoon. Ordinary in the ordinary:

nothing come of anything, matter unpossessed.

Until next month…


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