As a teenager, I had the lucky experience of spending the whole six weeks of the summer holidays travelling with a German exchange student. I went to some fantastic places. I jumped off a waterfall. I learned to play cards. I’m not sure I learned much German. Yet there is one memory from that trip I’ve thought about much more than any other over the years.
It’s so trivial, so mundane and bordering on the ridiculous that I can’t even contemplate attempting to make it sound exciting. I was introduced to a boy (exciting enough for a fifteen year old I guess) who claimed he could think of nothing. That he could totally empty his mind of any thought. “Impossible” we said. Even if you’re thinking of nothing, you’re thinking of something.
I’m fascinated by how the brain works. Memories, personality, feelings. An extremely complicated and highly individual mix which ultimately dictates how our life will turn out. All this from a bunch of cells, nerve endings, impulses and chemicals.
The brain as an organ is very sensitive. No don’t mean emotionally, although that could also be said to be true. Diseases and accidents involving the brain don’t just detract from us physically. They can take away the sense of self and purpose that makes us truly human.
Losing a parent to such a horrific illness at first taught me the fragility of the brain, and that scared me. I witnessed people use their brain carelessly in their deeds and words, and that angered me. Gradually I came to the realisation that we just don’t know what we’ve got until it’s gone, and it was something I had myself been guilty of. We not only take our own thinking power for granted, but that of others too. At some level we know it’s important, as we judge and compare levels of knowledge and intelligence. But we certainly haven’t built a society that is conducive to cultivating the brain. A good degree might get a bright young thing into a job but how does the employer protect that investment?
Talent management! Learning and development! I hear you cry. But that’s a drop in the ocean when organisations crush the creativity and innovation they value so highly by holding onto management ideals that all brains must behave in a certain way. The mental health aspect of employee wellbeing programmes is confined to addressing poor brain function, such as stress and depression. While these are important, what about preventive measures to preserve brain health?
A culture that doesn’t proactively promote mental wellbeing gives the message that it doesn’t matter. It gives the green light to employees to vilify intelligence because it’s inconsequential. It supports knowledge hoarding rather than sharing. They stop caring. They stop thinking logically. Their brains lose their potential and their capacity is restricted.
When I was a teenager I believed it was impossible to think of nothing. Now I’m not so sure.