With this blog post I intend to argue for an hypothesis about the benefits of extended solitude. I will try to quantify these benefits and propose an experiment to test whether my argued hypothesis is true.
To be able to efficiently talk about solitude we must first define the word and its meaning. Solitude is obviously about being alone – but more is required than simply being alone in my definition of the word. One must be isolated from regular communication and daily routine. It is permissible to talk and communicate with ones close-standing friends and relatives, but not in a frequent manner and most of all, not at will. Communication with people you know can not be whenever you want, it has to be at some occasion where downtime is experienced. The reason behind this is that you should not be able to simply communicate your thoughts to someone else for a discussion about the subject, your thoughts must stay with yourself and you must you yourself go through the entire chain of thoughts and sort things out for yourself. So in summary; no frequent communication, no regular daily routine and physically separate from anyone you would know.
I contend that putting yourself in a situation of extended solitude will have a much beneficial effect on your capability to have deep thoughts, relax to a greater extent and do things you would otherwise not deem yourself to have time to do.
Deep thought In every day life, I seem to dismiss a lot of thoughts because they are simply to large to think about. In a recent article from Pete Michaud, it is proposed that thinking large – and thereby deep, complex or otherwise more important and evolving – thoughts is impossible because of the restriction imposed by short-term memory. He suggests that to maintain a train of thought large enough to be important one must write it down. While I fully agree with his statement that large thoughts must be written down for us to have the capacity to process them, I do not agree that only large thoughts are important, this is however besides the point.
I suggest that putting oneself in complete solitude and with no clearly defined task ahead of you, one will have the possibility to explore these deep and large thoughts in a more thorough manner. One should of course bring a notepad to such a period of extended solitude because of the previously mentioned reasons.
The illusion of time While a daily routine is maintained and a person is in a familiar setting, I believe that we observe time differently than if we are in an unfamiliar setting doing things we would not normally do. I don’t think this argument would stand out as odd to anyone, it seems to be a well agreed upon statement. I suggest that the different view on time can in many cases be a much negative effect of daily life. We will think that we have much less time than we in fact do, we will easily make excuses to not to do something because we knows the schedule ahead very well and we are stuck in a mindset where we only see the next thing on the schedule as important. In a familiar setting, we might also easily fall into patterns of laziness – again a quite obvious statement.
In order to break all these “bad habits” – I as most others believe that we must go to an unfamiliar location and do things we would not normally do. While this change of setting and routine will counter many of the negative effects stated above, I believe that to gain true efficiency, as opposed to the statement that “you do not have time”, you must be in a state of previously defined solitude as well as have a loose unscheduled structure on your tasks. The words efficiency and unscheduled structure do not often coincide in the same sentence, for obvious reasons. But I am talking about efficiency within a very narrow set of tasks.
Relax I believe that relaxation comes from being able to do whatever you want. If you are in the act of performing a certain task like reading a book and get that kind of thought you want to explore, relaxation comes from being able to put down the book, pick up the notepad and explore that thought. This is opposed to the way I live my daily life where reading that book is most likely mandatory and I need to get it finished as soon as possible. I maintain that being in a state of solitude will make your brain work differently. Knowing that you are “allowed” to put the book down and explore a thought without any negative effects will make you more likely to have that thought. Another benefit of solitude would in this case be that it is the ultimate form of doing whatever you want. If you are not put in a state of solitude you might have to think about the effects of your behavior on others. This is also why there must be no regular communication in your solitude because it would impose a schedule on your time, making your brain less free to drift and more restrained in thinking about when and where it is.
To test the hypothesis that solitude will make you more efficient, have deeper (and productive, not simply pointlessly introspective) thoughts and more relaxed there is nothing to do but try it out. To this end I have constructed an ultimate scenario in which to test this hypothesis, fulfilling all my conditions of solitude as well as facilities to heighten your relaxation as well as your ability be completely unconstrained in every way.
Figure 1: Hurghada
I propose that to have the perfect circumstances to test my hypothesis one should travel to Hurghada, as illustrated in Figure 1. I have specifically chosen the Shedwan Golden Beach hotel as the destination for this test. It lives up to the conditions of the definition of solitude while it has all the facilities to enhance your ability to relax. Facilities such as a heated pool, jacuzzi, several bars, a fitness center and a buffet restaurant. If one can not relax, focus on thinking and get loosely planned things like reading done here, I suggest it can not be done anywhere.
As any hypothesis, I have simply constructed a model to the best of my experience. Naturally this model is an approximation of reality and as such it might approximate some aspects better than others. The possible flaws I see with this is the instinctively contradictive statement that one can be “absent-minded” and allow oneself to set things aside to explore a thought and still do your main task more efficiently. I contend that this effect can be attained by the fact that all your time is the time you spend doing this task, as opposed to the regular 8-12 hour workday where one will usually waste the rest of the time of the day. There needs to be some balance of thinking and reading if one is to get much reading done, but I suggest this balance is quite easily attainable. There is also a possible and probably great risk of the solitude leading to useless introspection, instead of productive introspection. Being alone for extended periods of time has a tendency with human beings to lead them into a false sense of “being right”. If exposed too much to your own world view without input from others, one can convince oneself that anything is true, no matter how crazy it really is. This is a bug in the function of the brain and I think it can easily be avoided by keeping the extended period of solitude to less than a week or two.
Do I intend to execute this experiment?
Yes, yes I do.
After the final exams for this period I will be going to Hurghada (as illustrated in Figure 1) and spend one week in the jacuzzi. With a book.
What I hope to attain My goal of this trip is threefold. Test the above hypothesis. Read the books listed below. Fill a couple of pages of my Moleskine with some thoughts I have been walking around with the last couple of months and hopefully get some coding done on a project that I will be doing in April next year (which I suppose is to be publicly announced pretty soon).
Appendix A – Books to read
I’ve already read about half of the first and third books, so the page-count totals at around 1500. It’s an absurdly high goal, but what the hey. If you’ve read this long; you’re probably not that adverse to reading anyway so you probably thinks it’s OK! ;P