Getting in your head

Toward the end of his appearance on Duncan Trussell’s podcast, Dr. Drew notes that he needs to spend more time in his head.

It got me thinking about silence.

Meditation has been an on-again, off-again habit for me (it’s on-again right now; if you’re curious, I use the Oak app (for iPhone).

One of my favorite things to do is to visit my friends at Remedy Float and climb in a float tank. Also called “sensory deprivation chambers,” these are light-less, soundless rooms about 4 feet across, 8 feet long and 7 feet high with 13 inches of water heated to 94 degrees (roughly skin temperature) and 1,000 pounds or so of Epsom salts, so you’re definitely going to float, no matter who you are.

It’s 60-90 minutes of about as quiet as you can get.

That’s just a starting point, apparently. Much longer in silence than that, you might actually start growing new neurons.

Crazy, right? New brain cells for being quiet for a couple of hours! Some people think that means silence might be a viable treatment for Alzheimer’s and other neuro-degenerative diseases.

In a study testing music in both musicians and non-musicians, rate of breathing, heart rate and blood pressure all went down when there was a pause in the music. Musicians more easily synced their breathing to the rhythm of the music, but otherwise, pauses in the music — the silent parts, in other words — were the bits that people were calmer during.

It’s not just for calm, though. During silence, we work things out. A couple of Australian scientists discovered that our brains are actually more active when not dealing with stimulus than when they are. The space between the stimuli is when we figure out what the stimuli mean.

We’re just starting, over the past couple of years, to understand the groupings of which neurons handle which stimuli.

Working things out during periods without stimulus, by the way, is the same reason we need to dream: we process what happened during the day and learn from it.

Silence can be so hard to come by that over the past decade, Finland has made solitude a central piece of its marketing to attract tourists.

Now, not everyone meditates in silence, but meditation can, in fact, quiet our brains. We discussed the benefits of meditation as it relates to increasing both happiness and patience.

We also know that meditation can make for better sleep, can help with self-relational feelings like personal empowerment and staying in love and help improve learning.

Silence leads to better focus. And there are a host of other benefits.

One of those benefits I want to discuss specifically is creativity. We’re going to have a series on creativity later this year, probably as fall approaches. Creativity isn’t just about art, or writing, or comedy or podcasting. It’s also about scientific innovation. Creativity allows us to see where we can combine fields or jump a gap.

Peter Gasca puts it simply:

If we are always focused on information input, it becomes even more difficult to force your brain to produce any output.

In other words, if you have to process noise (sounds, words, music, etc.) coming in, it’s hard for your brain to create some output.

If you’ve ever heard the term “content zombie,” you know what I mean. These are people who read a lot, listen to a lot of podcasts, squeeze in some audiobooks, take online courses, watch videos, and then … they can just spit back what they read or heard or watched but never put any of the knowledge or wisdom they absorb into practice.

There’s just so much input, they can’t seem to create any output.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s a ton of great content out there. We’re producing a ton more every day. It’s easier than ever to publish content, in text, audio, video or even a combination of those.

Thomas Oppong notes that collaboration can be important for creatives (where would a lot of musicians be without Quincy Jones as a collaborator?), but, at the same time, it’s solitude that allows is to get into flow (we’ve written about flow before, and there will be much more coming on it in the coming months), and, he notes, Einstein and Newton, among others, worked almost entirely alone.

Oppong also offers an important reminder: you can choose solitude. While you may be forced into collaborative situations at work, there are plenty of ways to get some silence in your day. Get in early, he writes, or find time before your family wakes up or after they go to sleep. Turn off your phone. Get away from anything that can give you notifications.

Let me offer up three action items, if you’re looking for a place to start.

1. Download and start with a meditation app. You can use Oak (my app of choice), Calm, Headspace, Omvana or any of the dozens of other apps available. Just pick one and do 10 minutes, every day for a week. If you find trouble finding the time and space in your house, grab some headphones and lock yourself in the bathroom for 10 minutes (not kidding).

2. Ditch your phone. Even for five minutes. Just turn it off, tuck it under your pillow, and go sit on the deck or the porch or the balcony or, again, the toilet. Just shush and don’t scroll through anything.

3. Block stuff out. I’m not saying get in float tank for an hour (though I’m definitely not not recommending that), but get yourself a nice sleep mask and some ear plugs (total under $25, if you didn’t click on them). Wear them for five to ten minutes, and don’t be scared of what runs through your mind.

Now, go do something awesome.


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