Purposelessness is good for you

The short story writer Grace Paley also spoke up in praise of idleness. “I have a basic indolence about me which is essential to writing,” she said in an interview. “It really is. Kids now call it space around you. It’s thinking time, it’s hanging-out time, it’s daydreaming time. You know, it’s lie-around-the-bed time, it’s sitting-like-a-dope-in-your-chair time. And that seems to me essential to my work.”

Such testimony is not just plain good sense; it is good science too. In a recent article in Discover magazine, the journalist Stephen Johnson reported on a conversation with neuroscientist Antonio Damasio. The cognitive part of our brain works very fast, Damasio explained. “So you can do a lot of reasoning, a lot of recognition of objects, remembering names in just a few hundredths of a second.” But the emotional part of our brains works very differently, and there is precious little evidence that this is going to change. Tasks that have to do with empathy and imagination, with slow-growing qualities like love and fidelity and ethics, will continue to develop in their own sweet time.