I can tell you, as a psychologist, that our brains aren’t good at focusing on nothing.
One of the reasons why meditation seems such a revolutionary practice to us— not to mention one of the reasons why meditation is so difficult for so many of us— is that we’re neuropsychologically wired to focus on stuff.
Our attention seeks objects and activity to focus on. It’s part of our evolution as a species.
Our evolutionary ancestors that did not have an appetite for objects and activity didn’t last too long in the prehistoric wilderness, insofar as they missed important opportunities to, say, bond and eat, which turned out to be somewhat important for survival.
The main reason why boredom is so painful to us modern human beings is because boredom, essentially, boils down to a lack of stimulating objets and activity to engage our focus. It’s the modern day equivalent of our cave-person brains seeking opportunities to bond and eat, so we can successfully survive and multiply.
And, as it turns out, like many psychological quirks that were evolutionarily selected for because it aided our survival? Our antipathy for boredom doesn’t serve us so well in the present, either.
In fact, our brain’s constant demand that we entertain it, put objects and activity in front of it in order to keep it happy and interested, can significantly work to our detriment if we constantly cave to its demands.
Put another way: if we constantly cater to our brain’s appetite for shiny objects, we’re going to be screwed in the long run.
This is the Internet. You may have noticed, there is no lack of competition on this magic computer machine for your attention. Even within the world of self-help and psychology blogs in which I exist on your computer screen, there is a never-ending stream of therapists, coaches, motivators, and instigators peddling their catchy quotes and inspirational words-of-the-day.
The Internet is a constant blur and blender of objects and activity. If we hooked your brain up to an EEG while surfing the Internet, the damn thing would light up like a Christmas tree.
There’s no worry about there being a lack of objects and activity to look at on the Internet. Which makes your inner cave-person happy, if maybe a bit overwhelmed.
Thing is, in our constant quest to never be bored— to quench, again and again, our neurodevelopmentally-based thirst for objects and activity— we might be chipping away at our progress toward our meaningful, long-term personal goals.
Fact is, we’re no longer the prehistoric, still-evolving cave-people we once were. We no longer need to be hypervigilant toward every rustle in the bushes which might be a saber-toothed tiger looking to eat us (a lesson some of us must learn again and again as we slowly overcome PTSD). And we no longer need to be immersed 24/7 in the project of defending our tribe or hunting for food— a memo our brains haven’t quite processed yet.
The constant blur of objects and activity that is the Internet is not going to slow down and ask you whether spending hours and hours scratching that evolutionary itch of stimulation is consistent with your long-term goals.
Believe me, if there’s one thing the Internet is NOT overly concerned with, it’s your development as a person.
Unlike your evolutionary ancestors, you have the ability to actually step back from your brain’s craving for stimulation, and ask yourself: you know all these hours I’m spending scrolling through my Facebook feed, watching movies on Amazon Prime, watching videos on Instagram— are they moving me closer to, or further away from, my goals?
Our cave-person ancestors didn’t have the luxury of asking questions like that. For one thing, they lacked the cognitive development to do so (cerebral cortex FTW). For another, long-term planning and the delay of gratification weren’t things that were rewarded in the prehistoric jungle— but they are in our modern world.
In our modern world, the ability to keep stimulation in perspective— to pick and choose when to indulge one’s appetite for objects and activity— often determines the difference between those who see their plans come to fruition in the long term, versus those who may be consistently entertained in the short term…but who struggle to achieve things that are meaningful in their lives in any larger sense.
Mind you, I’m not saying there’s anything inherently virtuous in boredom. Hell, I have ADHD; I hate being bored.
But I know that if I let my brain’s craving for stimulation, as well as the Internet’s enthusiasm for providing me with superficial stimulation, run my everyday life and determine my focus, I’m not truly living a life according to plan. I’m responding to a primitive impulse that makes me no more likely to be a success than my cave-person ancestors.
(Credit where it’s due, of course: they were good at hunting and gathering and not-dying. Not so great at pursuing long-term goals such as building a career, maintaining a relationship, or losing weight, though.)
You have a brain that is significantly more evolved than your evolutionary ancestors’. It may still balk at the idea of doing nothing, but don’t let that lure you into the trap of constantly seeking objects and activity to occupy your brain.
Your brain has spent eons evolving past the yearning for immediate gratification. Use it.