This morning while doing some research for a couple clients, I came across two interesting articles that seemed to connect.
One article was a piece by Rod Dreher talking about his time at the recent Society of Classical Learning (SCL) conference. Titled ‘The Problem with ‘Worldview’ Education‘, Dreher shared Joshua Gibbs’ insight that “real art is not something that calls forth an immediate response. You have to contemplate it, turn it over in your mind for a while.” Gibbs went on to suggest that one of the casualties of the worldview-based approach to education is that the rush to analyze texts through a worldview grid can prematurely foreclose–or even completely short-circuit–this necessary process of wondering about and contemplating texts.
When our brains become overloaded with too much information, or when our working memory is compromised by being exposed to too many distractions, there are certain mental functions that stop working as well. According to the research (which I have shared here and here), some of the cognitive functions that become diminished when we are bombarded with too much information include,
conceptual and contextual thinking;
the ability to grasp over-arching narratives of meaning (the big picture);
the ability to make unexpected connections between different ideas and facts;
the ability to put knowledge into schemas.
In short, scientists are finding that too much information can cause our brains to become lost in a sea of particulars without the ability to connect these particulars into larger structures of understanding. Other functions to be shut down include the ability to be attentive to others, to empathize, and the ability to understand things from another person’s point of view.
In order for these higher cognitive functions to work, the brain needs lots of time during the day when we are at rest, when we are quiet, and when we can focus on specific mental, imaginative or interpersonal tasks against a backdrop of stillness.
The Taylor Study Method has just posted an article I wrote on using gratitude to detox your brain. I pointed out that when you pay attention to negativity, you actually create toxins in your brain. This includes simply thinking negative thoughts. However, by cultivating an attitude of gratitude, you can starve all thinking that is negative, disordered or toxic. Just as fire can’t survive in an environment of water, so toxic thinking can’t survive in a neurological environment characterized by constant gratitude.
In this excellent video, B. Alan Wallace talks about the nature of cognitive health. The is one of the best descriptions of why the faculty of attention is central to human wellbeing, mental health and happiness.
In my recent TSM post ‘Gratitude as a Way of Seeing‘, I suggested that the areas we should be the most grateful for are often the things we easily overlook:
“Consider that much of what we think are justifiable grounds for complaint, and many of the circumstances that we become unhappy about, actually occur against the backdrop of lifestyles that are unimaginably prosperous and blessed from the perspective of all human history. The normal things in our life that ought to be occasions for profound gratitude are often overlooked precisely because they are so normal.
“For example, when was the last time you registered gratitude for clean drinking water? When was the last time you were grateful for the absence of enemies on the border of your town? When was the last time you experienced gratitude for the accessibility of books, music, tools and comfortable transportation?
“We’re naturally grateful for the things that are out of the ordinary—a bonus from work, a warm comment from a stranger, an extra special meal, an appreciative letter from a friend we haven’t seen in years, and so on. But we have to really work to cultivate gratefulness for the ordinary things that we tend to take for granted—our normal paycheck, routine kindness from family members, not having to go hungry every day, having a warm place to sleep at night, to say nothing of cultural advances that are ubiquitous. When you think about, these ordinary things ought to occasion the highest levels of gratitude. We ought to be grateful for these things precisely because they happen frequently enough to become normal.”
“If only someone would tell me what to do!” I often thought as I lay awake at night, going over and over the same problemsa in my mind.
The situation I found myself facing was different to the struggles I had faced earlier in my Christian life. In the early days of being a Christian, my focus had been on cutting out sinful habits and coming to terms with the claims of Christ on my life. It hadn’t been easy, but at least my marching orders had been straight-forward. By contrast, after many years as a believer, I increasingly found myself facing situations—sometimes on a daily basis—where I had no idea how God wanted me to behave. In the minutia of daily life, I encountered problems at work, problems with my teenage children, problems in the lives of those who looked to me for guidance, problems in my finances and health. I often found myself baffled, stumbling along without a clear sense of direction. On big decisions, I could go to my pastor for advice, but it simply wasn’t possible to get advice for the dozens of small problems that cropped up every day.
Overemphasizing the noetic effects of sin and underestimating the reality of common grace has enormous ramifications in how we approach pagan literature. When we come to a text like Homer’s Iliad, or the plays of Sophocles, is our knee-jerk instinct to assume these texts have nothing valuable to teach us regarding human nature and God’s world? If so, we will conceive our task primarily to unearth worldview deficiencies in these writers: to attack, criticize and condemn.
But if, on the other hand, we recognize that the ordering of reality has left the imprint of a divine grammar that even pagans cannot help but recognize, then we will come at these texts expecting to find additional confirmation of the inherent logic of creation – a logic which not even human sin can fully eradicate. Once again, there is a structural order to creation that is larger than, and prior to, God’s pedestrian commands
One of the myths about peace of mind, even among Christians, is that it is something that happens to you. The reality is that peace of mind is hard work. Like everything else that makes life worth living (i.e., gratitude, compassion, love, emotional intelligence), peace of mind is a skill that involves struggle and constant practice.
In a recent article for the Taylor Study Method, I’ve explored some of the steps we can take to achieving peace of mind. Since TSM is a secular company I wasn’t able to bring in the spiritual aspects, but everything I say can be found either from the Bible or the writings of spiritual mystics.
When I used to teach high school history, I often found myself puzzled why some students would diligently take notes about all the different historical figures I discussed in class but then as soon as the final test was over they would throw away a year’s worth of notes. Why was it that some students were genuinely interested in the material while others didn’t care and only learned for the test? We could probably think of lots of different reasons for this, but one important factor seemed to be the total lack of intellectual curiosity in some students.
Without intellectual curiosity learning is boring. Without intellectual curiosity the justification for knowledge ultimately rests in pragmatic concerns outside the material itself, with the result that knowledge is reduced to a utilitarian tool. Intellectual curiosity saves us from the type of servile mind that sees knowledge as only useful for material gain. That’s why intellectual curiosity is freeing, dignifying and humanizing. Intellectual curiosity arises naturally from the best education, since the finest education is able in instill in us the sense that life is intensely interesting and worthwhile to study for its own sake.
But intellectual curiosity is also very practical since it is closely connected with memory. When knowledge ceases to be interesting for its own sake then we find it difficult to remember the content. The brain is very efficient so that when something is boring for us the brain gets the message “This isn’t worth remembering, I need to conserve my resources for stuff that is more interesting.”
Most of the time those students whom we think have inherently good memories are simply the ones who are curious about the world and who therefore find the content they are learning interesting. Again, if content interests or excites us, then it is more likely to embed itself in our long-term memory as part of a larger web of schemas, associations and interconnections. But if something is boring to us, if we are only learning something because we feel we ought to, and if we don’t have the type of internal incentive to learn that comes from being genuinely curious about the world, then the knowledge is more likely to sit in our brain as isolated facts without any hooks to hang it on. Either that or knowledge is reduced to merely a pragmatic tool to help career advancement, which is what seems to be happening in a lot of science education today. (Matthew Crawford touched on this in an excellent article for The New Atlantis called ‘Science Education and Liberal Education.’)