Our home broadband has been on the blink this week. You really miss it when it’s not there. Perhaps worse is when it comes and goes – one minute you’re surfing gaily, the next you’re beached with a ‘no network’ message.
Csikszentmihalyi points out that, although impressive by electronic standards, the amount of data our minds can process simultaneously is surprisingly small. More punched tape than broadband. Two people talking to us at once or, say, riding a bike and whistling a song, just about exhausts our real time mental processing capacity. Any more and we lose attention and get distracted, flustered or confused.
I noticed it one day this week in the office. One minute I was churning out flowing prose, the next someone started talking in my earshot and I was distracted. I slowed to trickle – like someone was hogging my wifi. The talker left, bandwidth returned, and so did flowing prose. It was like flipping a switch.
Things, events, people and basic navigation are all basically different data and signals crowding in or cluttering up our cognitive bandwidth. This makes directing our consciousness and limited mental energy hard.
And it’s especially hard because life can easily just happen to us. Events and other people can readily soak up all the bandwidth we have. And if we do decide to use that precious resource on directed thought and action, we do so against a background of almost overwhelming distraction and diversions.
All life is, is the continual stream of sensory data, words, pictures, thoughts and ideas streaming through that narrow mental bandwidth. All we are, is the accumulated store of that data in the limited hard drives of our brains and to some extent those of others. It makes you think – until someone starts talking in your earshot and the mental connection is interrupted.
But given mental broadband is always there I’ve discovered I can redirect it when I catch myself wasting or underusing it. At work this week while being gently bored by a presenter on pan-European data collection standards, I contemplated the extraordinary beauty of a large tree – spare broadband successfully redeployed into joyful contemplation.
More experimental was testing optimising ‘flow’ by doing two different things simultaneously, and well. Combining loudly whistling the Marseillaise with cycling to work smoothly and safely through London traffic perfectly occupied my mental broadband. And in a heartily enjoyable way. Vive la France.
Our mental broadband has surprisingly limited peak capacity. But the compensation is it is ‘always on’. You can waste it or have it used for you, but you can also use it well. I found this week being more careful in how I deploy my personal ‘punched tape’ makes a big difference. Focusing its use on doing one or two things at a time really well – and exploiting every minute of it – whether I’m on my own, or with others, has removed a good deal of routine boredom and irritation from my week. Replacing that with moments of joy, satisfaction and genuine happiness is broadband well spent.
Waste not, want not.