Monday, June 28, 2010

Slow learner

For me, learning about slow has been a -  well, a slow road.

It's true to say that as well as the inevitable delays caused by my previously-described propensities toward perfectionism, exacting craftsmanship, and consequent procrastination (meaning a lot of stuff only ever got/gets done slowly), my typical speed of operation seems to have been set in the factory at "not slow".

This is across all sorts of areas of life too.  All these things go way back to early childhood: fast mover, fast talker, fast eater, fast thinker, and so on.  Despite having the marathonners' build I have always been pretty useless running beyond 200 metres, but not bad under 100.  Same in the pool, pretty handy over 100m, and extremely competitive at 50.  Crap at 200 and don't even bother asking about 400.  Because apart from the stamina/pacing myself factor, I just never had the patience.  A pretty genuine sprinter then.

Fast enough learner too, it should be said.

Seems like I'm really talking myself up here, but this is not my intention at all.  I'm exploring the 'down' sides as well as whatever 'ups' there are to this, and looking back at how I've changed - and haven't - over these years.

I do really like speed as a thing in itself, the joy of movement in the body and the whirring of the mind as it does its thing too.  Probably why I was far more attracted to motorcycles than cars early on.  They feel faster, you see, and to ride safely and well you really do have to think (or process) at a far higher rate than in a steel four-wheeler box.  I shall admit to liking fast driving in the past as well.  Speed is cool.

Still, I hardly think it's just me though, eh?  I may have been a bit more speedy than many, but it's the way of our times, is it not?

What is this fascination with speed these days, for so many of us?  Instant this and that (including gratification), and even the real growth in childhood disorders this last 25 years has been varietions on what we used to call hyperactivity, all the way up to the autism spectrum.  Something's going on. Our concept of time has changed dramatically.  You may remember, as I do, an age before the ubiquity of microwaves.  Food preparation took longer, and involved ovens - a previously everyday appliance in most households which now, in many homes, rarely if ever gets used.  You can in fact purchase swanky stainless steel false oven fronts for your designer kitchen, to save cost etc, if you never use one.  Not very long after the microwave oven colonised the western domestic kitchen I found myself standing in front of one, watching something in there revolve in the weird light they always have, tapping my foot and thinking
"Come ON....I haven't got all MINUTE!!"
...and had one of those moments of self-awareness when you see how bought-in you've become to the whole big consumer show.  Which runs on speed.

But why is fast the dominant tempo, and not slow?

I suspect part of the answer may simply lie in our wiring.

The basic principle is that time flies when you're having fun yet a boring day makes the clock really drag.  This seems to be a fairly universal experience, and to be related to how we store and process 'conscious' memory.  Think back to the last excellent party or dinner gathering you were at where you really had a great time.  Put yourself there now and replay that time from start to finish with all the highlights thrown in.  Go.  Didn't take long at all did it?  Have another go, paying attention to how you're feeling bodily, and to the expressions playing across your face.  Really get into it, and come again to the end....Go.  This third time, I'm going to ask you to prepare yourself to be aware of your feelings and sensations again, but - speed up the replay!! Go go go!

Now I'm thinking that this last time, you might have even approached something like a giggle, if you were having a genuine go at it.  At least noticing that with added speed your face crnkled up smiley-wise a bit more, and you felt somehow even a little happier with the memory.  You might even have noticed the colours or lighting being brighter in the pictures you saw, or the sounds louder and cheerier.  (All this is assuming you are not taking alterative substances such as SSRI antidepressants or the like, btw. That's a whole other post right there. This may still work if this is you, have a go!)  The reason for this, simply put, is that our brains associate fast processing, and thus fast replay, with things that make us feel really alive and usually good.  Sort of like adrenaline, maybe.  Part of this is the non-repetitive nature of our stored 'conscious' memories, in that they don't consist of small bits repeated over and over, but tend to move swiftly through time.

Let's contrast that experience with the last time you felt sad, depressed, or otherwise down.  Just go with the very first thing that popped into your head, no need to be strict about it being the most recent.  As you replay this memory, the first thing you'll probably notice is that even though it might represent a smaller actual length of past time than your party one before, the memory takes longer - and importantly seems to take longer - than the happy happy one.  You can imagine (briefly only, let's not get carried away here) what would happen were you to slow..... that..... one..... down.  Because the converse to the above example applies; we associate slow processing and replay with more 'down' emotions like sadness, loneliness, fear etc.  Anger too, despite fear and anger often having adrenaline-like components at times.  The other main differing factor between what we'll just call (for the sake of brevity) 'happy' and 'sad' memories is that the sad ones are often characterised by repetition.  This is the mechanism that makes the bad times drag on.  Depressing thoughts more often than not are relatively small chunks of recall repeated ad nauseam, thoughts you just can't seem to shake.  True depression in a very real sense is characterised by repetition of memory, 'conscious' or otherwise.

Let's reset now.  That down memory I asked you to bring up?  Grab it again, and as you replay it, speed it up, brighten the colours and contrast, and maybe even drop in some happy music like a calliope tune or the Seinfeld theme or something.  Just zips by now, yes?  And weirdly, it has the same content, but not the same feeling?  That's better.

I'll leave the ramifications of this notion for you to have fun with now, I hope I've made my point at least.

Maybe this is somewhere near the core of our need for speed.  That and some notion of competitiveness, as survival-wise we must have some sort of early-bird worm-getting / fastest hunter gets the prey / fastest children evade the predator sort of thing in there.  Thirdly perhaps a desire to be forever young - or to never die - to not accede to the chase of time, to stay a step ahead of the inevitable.......  In any case, it's an evolution thing, for sure.  (Or something God created us with, for those who just joined us a few thousand years ago.  Go for it.  I don't mind.)

Anyway, we also know how as we leave childhood, most of us discover some more mature pleasures in slowness.  Something savoured.  Men have a special time learning this one bodily as they mature sexually.  Ironically though, it seems we can hardly ever wait to get started!  Couldn't really speak for women on this one, not being a woman and all.  But the speedy mind thing generally stays with us, it's our default setting.

I first found the slow delight in music.  Lullabies, possibly, could be that far back.

Music is where I also first discovered something very deep that only now I come back to in a whole and realised way.  That 'down' has a special joy, and is not to be feared.  Slow can be gorgeous, sad can be intensely beautiful.  The trick to it is to get past the repetition thing.  Because depression is really not that great, in truth.

Rediscovery of the joys of slow (indeed the necessity of slow) is a fundamental part of the whole zeitgeist now too.  I'm not saying it's a new notion, far from it.  But I am seeing and feeling it creep through so much of our most powerful responses to our environment.  The newly refurbished and freshened conservatism (by which I simply mean a desire for change to be slow and incrementally built on what has gone before - the true and original definition of conservative) is gently beginning to prevail over its perverted offspring of the last few decades; the neo-liberal neo-conservative ways of governance and dogma (which are neither actually liberal nor conservative, ironically) and indeed we are seeing a concomitant swell in feeling that helps us disengage with radicalism and the foment of conflict.

Love is a slow emotion.  Let's savour it.

I have just reminded myself of something I read only recently.  It was written in September 2001, and is a beautifully wrought short piece on the power of love in the face of hatred.  You can check it out HERE.

Of course the journey will ultimately take us beyond fast and slow and every speed in between.  It's just nice to remember that slow will get us there just as quickly.

1 comment:

  1. Awesome post, awesome article by Ian McEwan too.
    Ta muchly!