Travelling Book Review: The Art of Nothing

Experiencing writers block, lack of concentration, or a general lack of ideas? According to Andrew Smart, writer of Auto-Pilot: The Art of Doing Nothing, the solution could be taking more time, as you might expect from the title, to do nothing. I found Smart’s book on sale at a used bookstore. Having recently experienced days where I worked so hard doing physical labour that I was unable to think at the end of the day I thought it would be interesting to read about the connection between thinking and leisure.

It’s a short read, but overall it’s a good read. In contrast to many of the time management self-help books which have become popular, Smart promotes a more holistic style of both thinking and living. He gives a scientific argument as to why doing so can make us smarter.

A long-standing myth among the public is that humans only use 10% of their brains. This is far from reality. In Auto-Pilot Smart explains that the myth originated with early scientists who studied the brain by monitoring it with an MRI machine while applying external sensory inputs. The scientists found that different external stimulus only activated around 10% of the brain, and assumed only 10% was used. The reality is that we use our whole brain but the large majority of it simply functions on its own.

Smart looks at ways in which we can improve the effectiveness of that other 90%. Often simply leaving the brain alone during some down time, daydreaming, or relaxation can improve its efficiency.

In a Reddit “Ask Me Anything“, Smart was asked about the effects of ’mind-wandering’ or daydreaming and gave an interesting response:

“I think that our brains have this natural tendency to engage in mind-wandering and it isn’t always a bad thing. In fact, why would we have such a strong tendency to daydream if it wasn’t useful for something? Perhaps in our evolutionary history daydreaming was adaptive, but in our society and culture today it has become maladaptive.

During mind-wandering I think your brain is trying to tell you something, or even that random thoughts are actually creative new ideas your brain is pushing up into your conscious awareness. I, for one, love daydreaming when I can really enter into a relaxed state without any effort, and it is then often that new ideas pop into my head – like writing about book about idleness and daydreaming.”

I found Smart’s concept to be especially useful for your average Athabasca University student. Many of whom, including myself, are running on a hectic schedule balancing work, study, and family life. Smart reminds us of the importance of taking the time for a break. After all Newton discovered the laws of gravity while sitting idly in a garden after some afternoon tea.