The Unbroken Hour: Neuroscience And Solitude

From time to time, I go to the neuroscience department of the university and sit on a stool in a soundproof chamber for two hours, with my chin in a chin rest and headphones on, doing multi sensory tasks for the glamorous rate of £8 an hour. I started doing this for the spare cash, but continued because it was fascinating, and apparently quite useful for science: as a musician I (reportedly) am a useful experimental subject, and I’m hanging on in the hope that the researcher will keep me on as a test subject in a future study on synesthesia.

These headphones are significantly fancier than the ones I use when I'm being a Lab Mouse For Science.

These headphones are significantly fancier than the ones I use when I’m being a Lab Mouse For Science.

I get short breaks during the first hour, but the second hour is an experimental run during which I can’t be disturbed by any outside noise for fear of messing up the data, so I’m in total silence for a full hour, alone with my thoughts.

It’s hard to stay awake sometimes, so I bring chocolate and allow myself a square during the thirty-second breaks between every short run. Sometimes I do a little silent dance in the break instead of eating chocolate, because it helps get my blood moving again and wakes me up. I am a very bad dancer. My own amusement at my dancing is just as good at keeping me awake as the dancing itself.

I always start the session feeling fairly upbeat. After all, I am helping with Science, and that’s satisfying. I play little games with the experiment to make it more fun (all I’m required to do is listen and click, and you’ve got to do something): I try to think of a name, in alphabetical order, for every set of acoustic data (they last three seconds or so), or a country, or an animal.

It can get morbid, though. I usually last about six rounds, which is roughly fifteen minutes, before my thoughts start drifting away from the fun distractions and get stuck in the dark, festering corners of my head, working over and over the same worries: inchoate fury about a stupid comment someone made online, despair about my uncomfortable relationship with a distant relative, or guilt that I still don’t speak sufficient Croatian to make conversation with my in-laws without the aid of sign language and my husband’s translation. By the time I come out of the box, I’m often sad, tired, and deeply frustrated.

But sometimes the enforced solitude has amazing potential. A few times, I’ve used the silence to think about plot problems in my novel. Each round lasts maybe three minutes, during which I can’t write anything because I’m clicking the mouse, so I use the test runs to think intensely, and then write down as much as I can in the thirty-second breaks. What I write down is invariably more interesting than what I would’ve thought of if I weren’t in a semi-sleepy fugue state.

Tell me you don't want to go and build one of these right now.

Tell me you don’t want to go and build one of these right now.

And life’s more abstract difficulties can be sorted out too, through intense thinking with no distractions: in one session, I had a piercing moment of clarity towards the middle of the hour, during a continuous stream of thought about whether I could handle the Yawning Chasm Of The Terrifying Unknown, i.e., motherhood. It was one of the strangest brain events I’ve ever experienced, very like watching someone place pieces of brightly-coloured furniture in a doll’s house until it was beautifully coherent, each piece a separate idea that came together with the others to form a reassuring conclusion; or as though someone was saying, with the aid of slides and a pointer, “This is how you’ll feel about this. And this is how you’ll do that. Everything will be fine.” It felt like a kind of accidental meditation, much more clear-headed than just spending half an hour going through daily life while self-doubt nagged in the background.

Various personality-categorisation systems talk about solitude as something craved mainly by introverts, who use it to “recharge”, but don’t we all need quiet sometimes? I’m probably a line-straddler as far as the Myers-Briggs type system goes, being something between an ENTP and INFP, and while I do get energy from socialising on tour, I also crave the sweet escape of the cool, silent, empty hotel room whose door, firmly shutting behind me, represents a barrier that allows me to write or do yoga or just think to my heart’s content. And after the relentless “on” of a two-hour performance, it’s necessary to have that space.

Isn’t she worried about the incoming tide? And is that a bikini top, a piece of string, or just a shadow? Man, clearing your mind is hard.

I met a very wise writer a couple of weeks ago, and during our conversation we talked about being alone, and how essential it is for the creative process. “I became a writer to get away from people,” she said, half joking, because she loves conversation and company – just not too much of it. Writing builds such an intimate connection between reader and author that there’s the phenomenon of being convinced you and your favourite writer would so be best friends if you ever met! – which is a kind of social illusion, I suppose. And of course you have to live in order to be able to write. Even Proust went to his fair share of parties. I write to get away, too, but in certain contexts, singing can be both a solitary and a communal activity – in a choir, listening to your neighbours’ breath and tuning, you are alone on your own line and also held up by everyone around you, swept along in a collaborative wave of sound and emotion and finely-honed craft. A colleague said recently that he feels least alone in a choir, and most alone in a (non-singing) crowd. Though I suppose if you were in a particularly boisterous crowd that happened to be singing, you might feel more alone than you would anywhere else. Particularly if they were singing some sort of Popular Music you happened not to be familiar with (welcome to my adolescence).

Not entirely related, but something I’ve been thinking about: listening to the radio stimulates the mind in a way that’s very similar to the way it’s used when you’re reading a book – in other words, much more than when you watch something on a screen. The mind’s theatre grinds into motion, characters are built and dismantled and re-imagined along with their backdrop. You can do anything in radio, the adage goes, because the sets and costumes and visual effects are all free. I was very moved by a story about radio this morning when, waiting for a train in Durham after last night’s concert, I struck up a conversation with a fellow American who said she listened to the BBC broadcasts during the Second World War, when she was a teenager, because her father’s job had something to do with radios, so they had a huge elaborate set in the living room that picked up transmissions from every country in the world. Often, listening to broadcasts from London, they would hear bombs falling in the background, and they could tell how close they were from the kind of sound they made. Once, the announcer stopped at the sound of a bomb, and, in the horrible three-second silence that meant the bomb was about to hit very close by, cried out, “Goodbye, Mum!”

I don’t know if it was apocryphal or really true, but it did have a violent effect on me. After having a good cry about it on the train platform (to the distress and confusion of my colleagues, who hadn’t heard the story and were rushing off to take their own train to London), I spent the journey thinking about tragedy, and silence, and solitude, and how little time we really have (what a cheery post, I can hear you thinking – sorry). Solitude can mean so many things – space to work, space to reflect, an unwelcome loneliness, or just a place to breathe in between phrases. Music is nothing without silence; relationships are nothing without temporary separation to remind us what we have. A pause can give intense meaning to a sentence; without taking time over poetry, we can’t absorb it. We take retreats from normal life to return to what is essential, to remember who we are, and come back refreshed.

Look at that corn. So wholesome.

Look at that corn. So wholesome.

I hope, wherever you are, you can enjoy some silence today, a little space to think, and be alone, and dream. It aids the creative process, so don’t worry about drifting off sometimes. When I wrote this I was on a train, staring at some rapidly receding sheep. Now I’m home, and the view is lovely.

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