It was 5pm and I’d gotten nowhere. I felt as if all the information that had been uploaded into my brain over the last few days had fragmented across my mind and my brain’s neural pathways were jammed.
I had writers block; the mental equivalent of the SWOD (Spinning Wheel of Death) that accompanies a computer operating system in need of an upgrade. I was hurtling towards a grant deadline and every word I’d composed felt trite, vacuous and a long way off encapsulating the depth of the film that I was hoping the grant would allow me to release.
I’m far from being the only person to experience a mental traffic jam from time to time. The Pew Research Center in the U.S. published a survey of 1520 adults which found that all their tweeting, texting, checking, chatting, inboxing and outboxing left around 20 percent of them feeling overloaded like me.
At a time when some estimates suggest that information overload costs $650 billion worldwide each year, it turns out “techno stress” is considered to be a diagnosable clinical condition. One research group has even declared October 23rd Information Overload Day.
So what should I do? Was it even possible clear my writer’s road block in a world of too much traffic?
As an evidence-based health journalist, when I have a problem of this kind I usually turn to peer-reviewed academic literature for answers. Although I’ve now read all about how people with chronic diseases can become immobilised because they’re overwhelmed by too much health information and how social media can be terrible for the mental health of teenagers, I was surprised to learn that despite the prevalence of muddy mindedness, it’s not actually well-studied in the scientific literature. Even less-studied is what to do about it.
So with very little guidance from science, I turned to the next best thing – the wisdom of the ages and the ancient practice of mindfulness.
For the last 18-months I’ve been working on a new film project which has involved my committing to meditating every day for a year and enlisting a team of scientists to track what happens. Although the experiment is technically over, I’m still meditating daily and it’s interesting that my writer’s block coincided with a run of especially busy days in which I’d only found about 15 minutes to meditate.
Truthfully, the last thing I felt like doing after a day spent banging my head against the keyboard was to sit and observe the unpleasantness of my inner mental experience. It would have been far more enjoyable to binge-watch Netflix. But nevertheless, with the grant deadline looming large, I meditated for a full hour before going to bed.
This involved non-judgementally observing all the thoughts drifting through my mind – from the practical (How long should I soak the cashews in order to make that dairy-free sauce tomorrow?), to the worthy (What were the conclusions of the stress-immune review paper?), to the completely useless (Why is Megan Markel’s dysfunctional family so newsworthy?) As one of my teachers says, I allowed all these thoughts to simply bubble up and float down stream.
That night I slept wonderfully and as I went about my morning activities the following day, bustling the kids off to school and preparing for work in the usual way, I also made a conscious choice to block extraneous forms of stimulation – no radio, no podcasts, no headlines, no email, no group chats, no texts.
When I hit my desk at 9am, the state of my mind could not have felt more different to the day before. It felt as if all the mud in my bucket had settled to the bottom and left only clear thinking behind.
I can’t find any scientific literature to explain this mud-in-the-bucket clearing effects I’ve experienced through my mindfulness training. The closest I’ve found in the neuro-biological literature is sleep research done on mice which showed that brains have a glymphatic system which clears protein build up from our brain while we sleep. But I fully accept that it’s a long stretch to equate the two.