Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Layering Experiences

The brain craves a certain layering of experience. I notice it most in complex decision-making. Human beings excel at tasks that require us to combine concurrent sets of observations into a single course of action. For example, navigating using a map requires the navigator to both chart a course based on the world as depicted on the map and to compare that with the real external world as he is moving through it. The destination is only reached when the two align. This type of analysis is common to almost any learned profession: doctors and nurses compare a patient's physical symptoms to his mental catalogue of ailments; a lawyer applies a body of laws to the facts of a client's case; an engineer creates machinery by combining his understanding of physical principles to the materials at his disposal in order to create useful tools and structures.

Complex decision-making requires mental dexterity, the ability to hop back and forth between gauging the status of the current situation, assessing the available outcomes, and choosing the course of action required to reach the optimal result. Any endeavor that requires this type of thinking yields, when properly executed, inherently rewarding results. And half of the reward is the navigation process itself. When we practice complex decision-making, our brains feel fully engaged; we are not bored.

We do something similar with aesthetic experiences. When we go out to dinner, we want not just excellent food but a good ambiance, which includes music and lighting, and we hope for good conversation with our companions. We prefer to relax in environments which stimulate several senses. These experiences get layered on top of one another and act to more fully engage us.

When we find ourselves in environments where we lack sufficient layers to experience, we feel uncomfortable or often, bored. Our brains are not being fully used. So often now, when we have that feeling, we reach for our phones or computers. These offer immediate engagement, an additional layer (or several) to our experience. I am concerned, however, that:

1. The constant availability of easy relief from even the smallest amount of boredom, such as during a five minute wait in the grocery store aisle, distracts us from finding other layers to experience which are also available but less obvious, such as noticing details in the environment, engaging in conversation with strangers, letting our minds wander and turn over problems in our subconscious, re-considering what someone meant when we spoke to them earlier, recalling a childhood memory or a comic's one-liner, or even rehearsing a to-do list for when we get home.

2. The same devices which we use to alleviate our boredom also create our boredom. The phone that we pick up to text on while we're driving and bored is the same device that made it easy to thoughtlessly navigate to a new destination using a GPS during that same trip. Instead of becoming bored and deciding to look at the phone while driving, we could have skipped the phone all together and spent our mental energy figuring out how to get where we were going. This reminds me of a lesson I slowly learned when my children were very small: that there was no use rushing through playing with them and then ending up having to figure out something else to do. It was easier and better for all of us if I submitted to their slower pace and let their games fill up the hours instead of following my own internal metronome and rushing to conclude activities only to have to figure out a new activity. Something in us wants to get things done as quickly as possible even when doing so means we will be bored when we're done. Our technology makes it all too easy to do this, and then offers a shallow substitute for the experience we could have had without it.

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