The Power of doing Nothing... but think


I recently learned that there are two types of people when it comes to their inner voice. There is a group who has a constant inner narrator, a sort of internal brain Morgen Freeman that vocalizes all their thoughts into sentences in a way that the person can 'hear' them. On the other side, there are people who don't have this narrator, and who simply know what they are thinking. These people do not form their thoughts into sentences, however when necessary can consciously turn their non-verbal thoughts into sentences. When I read this, and I assume this applies to most people, I had two initial reactions. First, I had never realized which type I am (it turns out that I don't verbalize my thoughts and I just know what I think) and second I cannot imagine what the other one would be like. Do people really go about their lives listening to themselves monologuing all the time?

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In the past, I have written about your relationship with your inner critic. In that blog, I talked about the purpose of the brain and how we are running on old hardware with push notification that cannot be turned off. I discussed a technique that can be used to help you through a moment in which your inner voice is your biggest critic. This technique is really useful when you don't want to listen to that voice in that moment, for instance when you are trying to focus on a task. However, there are also many moments in which we do want to listen and have a conversation with the internal voice, for instance when you want to self-reflect or think over a big decision. Frustratingly, it is sometimes just as hard to listen to your inner voice when you want to as it is to not listen to it when you don't want to. Therefore, the question I am asking today is how can we control when we have a conversation with our inner voice and the simple answer is: do nothing.


To explain why doing nothing is so vital in being able to look inside your own brain, we have to go back to the anatomy and basic function of the brain. This part might get a bit technical but I promise that I will tie all of this back to the question at the end. Our brain is an extremely complex organ that is able to process vast amounts of information in a short amount of time and come up with responses based on that. It is so complex, that scientists still don't understand how it works. Back in university, I was doing a neuroscience specialization and it became really clear that although scientist understand the basic, individual parts of the brain, they have no idea how they all interact in order to produce the functionality of an entire brain. What we do know is that there are restraints build into the brain, and in this case the most important one is: the brain only has one conscious processing unit. This means that we cannot consciously focus on multiple things at the same time (a different discussion, but this means nobody, neither man nor women, can multi-task). Think of the brain as having one channel. Whatever is happening on that channel is the only conscious thought happening at that moment.

This concept of the single processing unit is probably best illustrated by a common, and hilarious phenomenon that a lot of people witness: turning the radio down when finding a parking spot. As silly as it may seem that you need to lower the volume in order to be able to find a parking spot, it actually makes a lot of sense. Your brain cannot both consciously focus on the music and on the parking spot at the same time. When you are driving normally, this is not a problem because, for most people, driving is no longer a conscious skill. The moment however, when something that is conscious has to be done, in this case parking, the music is a problem and the volume has to come down.

The brain's single processing unit also means that the brain can either receive outside stimuli, or send internal stimuli. We have all experienced this. For instance, when watching a movie, in this case the brain is receiving stimuli, we don't think about other things we might have to do later. In other words, you cannot 'hear' yourself think while receiving stimuli. This is why doing nothing is so important, it allows the brain to switch from receiving stimuli to sending them. In order to have a conversation with your inner voice, you need to allow the brain to send information rather than be occupied with receiving it. You need to do nothing in order to think critically.


Now take a moment to assess how much time you spent each day in which you do nothing. That means, no other people, no phone, no music, no book... truly nothing. The answer for me is very little, maybe even none. I am always either talking to someone, listening to a podcast or watching a tv-show. This means that I never get to check in with myself and see how I am doing. I never get to explore creative ideas. I never get to recover from the constant strain of receiving stimuli. Over time, that can start to be a problem, where you start to feel detached from yourself.


My advice to anyone is to allow yourself to do nothing once in a while. You will find that it makes you feel more relaxed, less tired and in many cases will lead to feeling more productive.

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