Put down the cell phone, run outside and just play. It works wonders for your outlook

Schoolchildren play on playground equipment at Jane Addams Elementary School in Fresno. Playing is one of the best ways to spur creative thinking, says an MIT professor in a new book.
Schoolchildren play on playground equipment at Jane Addams Elementary School in Fresno. Playing is one of the best ways to spur creative thinking, says an MIT professor in a new book. Fresno Bee file

Who would be the most likely author of a book entitled, “In Praise of Wasting Time”? A novelist? A philosopher? A beach bum?

No, it turns out that the author of this recent book is a physicist and professor at MIT, Alan Lightman. His career would seem to be high pressured, with no time to waste. This scientist, however, is passionate about the importance of time- wasting.

John Spevak New Photo
John Spevak, columnist for the Enterprise. Enterprise file

The reader who moves through his short book (90 pages, not counting notes) soon realizes that the downtime Lightman talks about is not really wasted (as it might look to some) but an important time for the mind to unwind and be creative and reflective.

Lightman is worried about American society today, especially for students from elementary school to college. He notes that we live in an era when there is little, if any, time to be quiet or alone, because we are frequently badgered with reminders to stay busy and active and not waste a single moment.

And when we’re not working on something, we’re continually tempted to fill that downtime with screens —computers, tablets and above all smart phones.

“Little by little,” Lightman writes, “we have lost the silences, the needed time for contemplation, the open spaces in our minds, the privacies we once had. We have lost the knowledge of who we are and what is important to us.”

As a scientist, Lightman realizes these open spaces are important for creative thought, the kind that allows scientists to make new discoveries. He gives several examples of scientists who solved problems and developed innovations when they weren’t thinking or working.

Quiet time in solitude allowed these scientists to think and ponder. It also allowed their unconscious mind, an important part of the creative process, time to process thoughts which their conscious mind could later use to formulate new theories or solutions.

Lightman feels that downtime is critical for all people, especially students. Citing a recent article in University World News, he finds it disturbing that we live in an age when students at all levels are “deluged” with information but “seem to be less prepared to critically evaluate information or determine and defend what they believe.” They have little time to reflect upon what they’ve learned.

Lightman is also concerned about recent research that shows that more teenagers are feeling severely depressed and more college students feeling intensely stressed than ever. Even kindergartners are feeling pressured to use every spare moment on homework.

He cites a study that shows that “children have become less emotionally express, less energetic, less talkative and verbally expressive, less humorous and less imaginative.”

Kids today have less time to play, even as young children, but he cites research showing “the benefit of play allows each child to gain confidence” and play generates “spontaneous creative activities in which children freely choose to engage. The urge to teach must not conflict with the desire to learn.”

Lightman points out that what appears to be “wasted” time is actually time that “not only enables our creativity and our need for rest, but also enables the formation and maintenance of our deep sense of being and identity.” This loss of downtime is particularly harmful for teenagers.

Lightman believes we are experiencing a crisis and “the situation is dire.” He has several suggestions to reduce the stress and depression our overactive society has instigated and develop a perspective that is more creative and balanced.

His primary suggestion is to develop a “habit of mind with a regular pattern of thinking and approaching life, a deeply rooted and constant manner of honoring your inner self, affirming your values and arranging your life so as to live by those values.”

He also recommends that families designate an “unplugged” hour during the evening, “perhaps at dinner, in which all phones, smartphones, computers and other devices are turned off. Dinner should not but gulped down but should be a time for quiet conversation.”

He encourages individuals “to build in a half-hour away from the wired world, such as taking a walk while unplugged, reading or simply sitting quietly.”

I couldn’t agree more with Lightman. I realize the future will almost inevitably continue to require us to use screens for work. However, we need to balance that requirement with a good dose of downtime.

I will make it a point, as I hope my readers will do, to ensure that I regularly “waste” time and allow my creativity to increase and my pulse to slow down.

And I hope my readers and I can find ways to help our children and grandchildren cope with their wired world by encouraging them to find and treasure times every day to experience quiet, reflect on what they’ve learned, allow their imaginations to roam and create a deep sense of their unique identity.

Reminder: Arts, Books and Bites is coming soon. The Friends of the Los Banos Library’s annual fundraiser will take place Oct. 17 at the library from 5 to 8 p.m. . Tickets for the Thursday evening event are still available from any Friend of the Los Banos Library.

John Spevak wrote this for the Los Banos Enterprise. His email is john.spevak@gmail.com