While the first real Autumn storm is wiping through the landscape here in Eastern Finland, bending the pines in our backyard to their limits and generating waves big like sheep on the lake, it’s great to discover from Facebook postings – thanks to Lauri Gröhn – an article about the impact of landscape in our thinking. I have the priviledge to live in a small village on the lake all year round and to see how the landscape can change from day to day, from season to season. This rural environment here combined with my regular visits to metropolises have inspired me to think, how important the balance between these two lifestyles is for my wellbeing and overall meaningfulness of the life. So, the topic ‘buzz vs. solitude’ is close to my heart.
Nicholas Carr describes in his latest book ”The Shallows”, how human thought has been shaped through the centuries by “tools of the mind” – from alphabet to maps, to the printing press, also things like a clock, a computer and lately Internet. According to Carr “The Internet encourages the rapid, distracted sampling of small bits of information from many sources. Its ethic is the ethic of the industrialist, and ethic of speed and efficiency, of optimized production and consumption – and now the Net is remaking us in it’s own image. We are becoming ever more adept at scanning and skimming, but what we are loosing is our capacity for concentration, contemplation, and reflection.”
My thoughts were inspired by Nicholas Carr’s blog ”The mind in the landscape” , where he shows various examples from scientific studies proving, that the difference between being in the nature or in the busy metropolis affects our cognitive skills. The outcomes of the two studies mentioned are evident.
First, Mark van Vugt, of VU University in Amsterdam, and his colleagues found that a country scenery of the sort Coleridge beheld inspires people to think about the future; concrete cityscapes encourage quick decisions aimed at immediate rewards. This is indeed very insightful result. Wow! From now on all the strategy workshops and board meetings of the leading corporations should be organized in rural settings, only the operational everyday activities benefit from the metropolitan buzz.
Secondly, a team of University of Michigan researchers, led by psychologist Marc Berman, recruited some three dozen people and subjected them to a rigorous, and mentally fatiguing, series of tests designed to measure the capacity of their working memory and their ability to exert top-down control over their attention. The subjects were then divided into two groups. Half of them spent about an hour walking through a secluded woodland park, and the other half spent an equal amount of time walking along busy downtown streets. Both groups then took the tests a second time. Spending time in the park, the researchers found, “significantly improved” people’s performance on the cognitive tests, indicating a substantial increase in attentiveness. Walking in the city, by contrast, led to no improvement in test results.
To increase “coincidensity” – so diversity and social density – like in the metropolitan case or to add randomness and sophisticated algorithms – like in Google’s Serendipity Engine case, will certainly help in creating unexpected events and encounters, but do they also support gaining insight with value. Or is a sustainable balance between metropolitan buzz and solitude in the nature still the best way of harnessing serendipity?
Certainly this leads to the more fundamental thinking of the problem. “Some aspects of life — often the most meaningful & rewarding aspects — require time & depth, yet the digital world constantly makes us break it into discrete, interchangeable bits that hurtle us forward so rapidly & inexorably that we simply don’t have time to stop & think”, like William Timothy Lukeman describes the dilemma in Amazon customer review of Carr’s book. To stop and think, why is such a simple advice very hard to follow. The dilemma of our time.
These powerful results should be carefully reflected in the context of the current serendipity research and applied into those development projects devoted to harnessing serendipity. “Metropoles as serendipity machines” and Google’s next generation “Serendipity Engine” just under construction may perhaps not take into account these important insights. To increase “coincidensity” – so diversity and social density – like in the metropolitan case or to add randomness and sophisticated algorithms – like in Google’s case, will certainly help in creating unexpected events and encounters, but do they also support gaining insight with value. Or is a sustainable balance between metropolitan buzz and solitude in the nature still the best way of harnessing serendipity? For me the answer is clear. I am already looking forward to my next trip to feel and breathe the metropolitan buzz . It’s a long way from my lovely country village in Sotkuma to Saint Petersburg, but it’s always worth of traveling.
The photo: “A misty morning on my home lake – a moment of inspiration!”