"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Can’t Concentrate? Go To A Noisy Cafeteria

I do my best thinking in cafeterias, coffee shops, and walks in city parks.  I am at my worst when it is quiet except for an occasional noise, like the peep of an elevator or the tumbling of an ice-maker far down the corridor -  intermittent and infrequent sounds that I listen for.  I know these small but intrusive noises are coming, and I wait for them, I begin to hate them; and I cannot think when I know they are coming but know not when.

However, there is nothing wrong with noise per se. It is its infrequency, intermittency, or suddenness which disturb concentration. When I am in a crowded place, I take noise for granted.  One bit of chatter blends with all others. The clatter of one coffee cup becomes part of a low, continuous collective clatter – unnoticed and unintrusive.

I never was bothered by the incidental noise of an office.  Neither the tapping of keyboards, the shuffling of paper out of the copier, cubicle phone conversations, or the sounds of traffic from the street. They became part of the office ambience, its background, and as such were never intrusive.

I do my best creative thinking on walks in busy places.  I have composed short stories walking the streets of Adams Morgan, organized lectures on Othello along the busy C&O Canal, and prepared addresses before international colloquia wandering the narrow lanes of Trastervere or on the Hudson River Promenade. 

Whenever I learned a new language, I would take long city walks and invent conversations to fit the scene. I practiced the impossible declensions of Russian walking the streets of Kiev; the foggy subjunctives of Portuguese amidst the tourists at the Washington Monument, and the intensifiers of Italian visiting the old industrial town of New Brighton, Connecticut, my home town.  Nothing could interrupt these internal dialogues – not sirens, construction, pedestrian crossing beepers, or yelling children. I conjugated; mastered the conditional and  the peremptory and polite forms of the imperative.  I practiced greetings and salutations, directions, questions and likely answers.

According to George Prochnik writing in the New York Times (8.25.13) the philosopher Schopenhauer considered noise to be the worst enemy of the deep thinker:

His argument against noise was simple: A great mind can have great thoughts only if all its powers of concentration are brought to bear on one subject, in the same way that a concave mirror focuses light on one point. Just as a mighty army becomes useless if its soldiers are scattered helter-skelter, a great mind becomes ordinary the moment its energies are dispersed.

Schopenhauer went on to suggest that it isn’t noise alone which causes the great mind to be deflected, it is “brutish jolts of sound” – my banging ice makers and elevator doors –and  the isolated, intrusive, and unexpected noises penetrating silence.  Schopenhauer’s particular nemesis was the “infernal cracking’ of coachmen’s whips. The philosopher’s problem may not have been too much noise but not enough.  Had he been able to surround himself with the random clatter and voices of cafeterias, coffee shops, busy streets, and busy parks, he might have been able to think more great thoughts.

Prochnik goes on to cite evolutionary evidence of our innate, programmed response to unusual noise:

Mammalian hearing developed primarily as an animal-detector system — and it was crucial to hear every rustle from afar. The evolved ear is an extraordinary amplifier. By the time the brain registers a sound, our auditory mechanism has jacked the volume several hundredfold from the level at which the sound wave first started washing around the loopy whirls of our ears. This is why, in a reasonably quiet room, we actually can hear a pin drop.

While this may indeed be true, it ignores the real question of concentration raised by Schopenhauer.  It doesn’t matter that we can hear a pin drop in a quiet room, or that I can count the ice cubes tumbling out of the ice maker 100 feet down the corridor.  It matters only how one manages or manipulates sound to enhance concentration.  Concentration improves in a crowded cafeteria because there is a lot of noise, and there are no unexpected drips of water, pins dropping, or buzzers beeping.  It all becomes background.

Prochnik turns to really loud invasive noise – jet planes, jackhammers, and sirens; but once again, these sounds cannot be taken out of context.  My office in New York City was on a major avenue and sirens and jackhammers were frequent, daily occurrences.  Soon they became part of the unintrusive background of the city – they lost their uniqueness and became part of the ambient sound environment.  I no longer heard them.

The same can be true of aircraft.  There is no doubt that if air traffic control changes flight patterns because of wind or storms, and if the jets taking off and landing at National Airport are diverted to my normally empty airspace, I will look up.  The same for helicopters.  Every service has them – DC Police, FBI, Treasury, Homeland Security, Defense, and the White House – but flights are irregular and unexpected.  No one can ignore the thumping of copter rotors a few hundred feet overhead; but if flights settled into a pattern, they would easily be ignored.

Prochnik finally recounts the time he was interviewed on a radio station serving remote parts of Newfoundland:

One caller lived in a village with just a few houses and almost no vehicular traffic. Her family had been sitting in the living room one evening when the power suddenly cut off…All at once, the many electronic devices around them (including the refrigerator, computers, generator, lamps and home entertainment systems and the unnatural ambient hum they generated and to which the family had become oblivious) went silent. The family members didn’t realize until the sound went off how loud it had become. Without knowing it, each family member’s mental energy was constantly diverted by and responsive to the threat posed by that sound.

This story, however, again diverts attention from the central issue posed by Schopenhauer – concentration and how noise affects it.  Most of us living in metropolitan areas, let alone the backwoods of Newfoundland, stop for a moment when the refrigerator stops humming.  We comment that we never realized how much noise it makes.  We notice the silence but we never noticed the noise and  went about our business talking, reading, or relaxing.  The hum of appliances, heating, and cooling were part of our familiar environment.  The noise disappeared once we became used to it.

The author raises issues of hearing damage and loss caused by noise, and there is no doubt that if one is subjected to the pounding decibels of jet engines every day, regardless how completely they are ignored, harm can result. This, however, is a separate problem and unrelated to concentration.

Schopenhauer gave in to noise later in his life, and found that once he relaxed and accepted noise and sounds as necessary and interesting elements of life which could be controlled, managed, and manipulated if necessary, he was happier:

Apparently he, too, believed it important to observe as much of life as possible. And when he moved to Frankfurt, he didn’t bring earplugs. He brought along a poodle known to bark on occasion, and the flute he loved to play after writing.

No one knows if he ever ‘embraced’ noise, but leaving his vernal retreat and joining the rest of the world seems like the first step.

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