2006 : WHAT IS YOUR DANGEROUS IDEA?

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Ophthalmologist and Neurobiologist, George Washington University
A 24-hour period of absolute solitude

Our brains are constantly subjected to the demands of multi-tasking and a seemingly endless cacophony of information from diverse sources. Cell phones, emails, computers, and cable television are omnipresent, not to mention such archaic venues as books, newspapers and magazines.

This induces an unrelenting barrage of neuronal activity that in turn produces long-lasting structural modification in virtually all compartments of the nervous system. A fledging industry touts the virtues of exercising your brain for self-improvement. Programs are offered for how to make virtually any region of your neocortex a more efficient processor. Parents are urged to begin such regimes in preschool children and adults are told to take advantage of their brain's plastic properties for professional advancement. The evidence documenting the veracity for such claims is still outstanding, but one thing is clear. Even if brain exercise does work, the subsequent waves of neuronal activities stemming from simply living a modern lifestyle are likely to eradicate the presumed hard-earned benefits of brain exercise.

My dangerous idea is that what's needed to attain optimal brain performance — with or without prior brain exercise — is a 24-hour period of absolute solitude. By absolute solitude I mean no verbal interactions of any kind (written or spoken, live or recorded) with another human being. I would venture that a significantly higher proportion of people reading these words have tried skydiving than experienced one day of absolute solitude.

What to do to fill the waking hours? That's a question that each person would need to answer for him/herself. Unless you've spent time in a monastery or in solitary confinement it's unlikely that you've had to deal with this issue. The only activity not proscribed is thinking. Imagine if everyone in this country had the opportunity to do nothing but engage in uninterrupted thought for one full day a year!

A national day of absolute solitude would do more to improve the brains of all Americans than any other one-day program. (I leave it to the lawmakers to figure out a plan for implementing this proposal.)The danger stems from the fact that a 24 period for uninterrupted thinking could cause irrevocable upheavals in much of what our society currently holds sacred.But whether that would improve our present state of affairs cannot be guaranteed.