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I leave the rest to your imagination | Jonny Smallwood

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Humans are remarkable, not because of their capacity for doing things (we are neither the fastest nor strongest species on the planet) but because of our capacity to conceive of how things might be rather than how they are right now. This capacity for imagination allows us to make plans for the future, to see problems in a new light and to understand why other people act the way they do. Perhaps more relevant to this blog, however, is the fact that whether our sleep is being disrupted by ruminations about work, or we pass idle time on a bus by daydreaming about a romantic liaison or a holiday, imaginative process are at play when we are otherwise at rest. Ironically, the important role imagination plays in our species’ cognitive toolbox is matched by the problems that arise when attempting to study the experience; it is in this context that the Hubbub project makes an important contribution to understanding the human condition.

Imagination is hard to study for two reasons. First, the private nature of imaginative processes means that they are primarily accessible through introspective analysis. This subjective perspective provides a rich datum of the qualities of the thoughts that people experience, but can lack the objectivity that scientific analysis ultimately requires. Second, spontaneity is a quintessential and perhaps critical, feature of the imaginative process, however, it denies the experimenter the opportunity to manipulate the topic of their investigation.  Without the capability to manipulate imaginative processes it is much harder to study them scientifically. Problems in measurement and control have therefore prevented the study of imagination from receiving the attention it deserves.

In the last decades, research on what the mind and brain does when otherwise unoccupied has led to the recognition that imagination plays a key role in our mental life.  Thanks to this work we now know that we need to understand what thoughts people’s imagination leads them to think, what these mean to the individual who experiences them and how they are perceived by society as a whole. We must also understand the functional role imaginative processes play by charting the costs and benefits that they bring in daily life and explore how people can learn to exert control over them.  The answers to such a wide range of questions will not come from a specific paradigm or even a single scientific discipline.

It is this context that the studies that we are conducting in the Hubbub project are important. By gathering together a team of poets, historians, neuroscientists and psychologists, and focusing their attention on the nature of rest, we are able to explore imaginative experiences from a rich multi disciplinary perspective. We use a broad range of techniques to explore the subjective structure of imaginative experiences, delve into its historical and artistic basis and probe the underlying neural mechanisms that support it. This exciting chance to understand the experience of imagination from many different angles will provide unprecedented insight into what is now recognised to be a key element of the human condition. So sit back, relax, and imagine what we will discover in the next 18 months.

Follow Jonny Smallwood @the_mindwanders

Fear of Rest | Michael Greaney

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Rest is elusive. It’s not easy to frame a definition of rest in positive terms (talk of rest is usually talk of absence – the absence of work, or activity, or stimulation); nor is it easy to indulge in the pleasures of rest in a modern world that solicits our round-the-clock involvement as indefatigable producers and consumers. But one thing that we can surely all agree on – can’t we? — is that rest is a good thing, and that we need more of it.

What are to make, then, of those cultural texts in which rest is something to be avoided at all costs? What might there be to fear in the state of rest? One of the most memorable high-concept action movies of the 1990s was Jan de Bont’s Speed (1994), the story of an embittered ex-cop who rigs an L.A. city bus with a bomb that will explode if the vehicle’s speed drops below 50 miles per hour. Rest and immobility, for the duration of this movie, are quite simply out of the question; they are equated not with sumptuous languor but with instant, gruesome death. Nor is Speed unique in the fear of rest that it seems to radiate. De Bont’s movie seems to have inaugurated a new aesthetic of unstoppability that drives the contemporary Hollywood action movie – a hyperkinetic model of storytelling that is addicted to velocity, swept along by the juggernaut of its own mindless narrative momentum. In the very titles of such recent films as Unstoppable (2010), Non-Stop (2014), and the seemingly interminable Fast and Furious (2001- ) franchise, we are invited to recognize our existence in the modern world as thrillingly accelerated, vertiginously headlong and breathlessly nonstop.

The trains, planes and automobiles that hurtle through these movies are the primary vehicles for a distinctively modern fear/fantasy of thrilling relentlessness, but in Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor’s Crank (2006) it is the human body that is re-imagined as an unstoppable piece of technology. Crank stars Jason Statham as an L.A. hit-man whose plans to quit the job are wrecked when a long-time rival injects him, while he sleeps, with a synthetic drug that inhibits the flow of adrenalin and threatens to stop his heart from beating. Falling asleep was obviously a disastrously bad idea for Statham. Only by indulging in a non-stop sequence of hair-raisingly reckless and dangerous escapades can our hero keep his heart pumping blood through his veins.  What is unthinkable, in the context of the runaway train (or bus or plane) movie, is slowness, idling, tarrying, dawdling; any drop in the rate and intensity of the drama — whether measured in miles-per-hour or beats-per-minute – is fatal.

How seriously should we take these cartoonish fantasies of compulsory masculine hyperactivity? Could it be that they are nothing more than the flipside of the sleeping beauty narrative, which is our culture’s dominant myth of compulsory female hyperpassivity? It would be intriguing, I think, watch them alongside Tom Tywker’s Run Lola Run  (1998), a remarkable text of female hyperactivity, in order to broach the question of the gendering of rest in the contemporary imagination. You might also read the fear of rest in the ‘unstoppable’ genre through a psychoanalytic lens as a lightly disguised or slightly displaced version of our universal fear of our own mortality. And you might even speculate on whether this fear of rest may be an involuntary tribute to the power of the work ethic. After all, it is thanks to the work ethic that we sometimes manage to convince ourselves that the state of rest – that state of doing absolutely nothing — is at best a guilty pleasure and at worst a suicidally decadent from of being in the world.

The philosopher Paul Virilio has coined the term ‘dromology’ (from the Greek dromos or ‘race course’) for the logic of speed that drives modern technological society. And it would be tempting to think of a screening of Speed or Crank or Unstoppable, in Virilio-esque terms, as a kind of mass meeting for Dromomaniacs Anonymous. But perhaps there is some value in the resistance to rest that is so brashly commodified by these movies. Not a resistance to rest tout court, but to the rest is sold to us by a society that continually invites us to consume rest — to have a break, take a break, get some sleep, get some rest, take some time out. From chocolate bars to magazines to sleeping pills to regimes of self-care in spas and detox centres, capitalism caters lavishly for the rest and sleep that its rhythms seem to be remorselessly eroding. The fantasies of rest that circulate in our collective imagination – the luxuriously appointed sleeper car, the impossibly sumptuous five-star hotel, the poolside sun lounger, the hammock slung between palm trees – seem to attest to the self-evident desirability of states of recuperative inactivity even as they imagine those states as the preserve of the super-rich.

Maybe, then, we should think of what I’ve called  “fear of rest” not as a coded fear of death but rather as a resistance to certain discourse of rest — a refusal to have rest either sold back to us as a commodity or transformed into a cultural practice that we need work at. Maybe rest is elusive because, at some level, we want to elude (a certain version of) it. And if we can begin thinking in terms of resistance to the commodification of rest – we could call this a process of rest-istance – then we might begin to make some headway in the search for a cure for dromomania.

'You can't stop the waves but you can learn to surf' - slogan at Covent Garden Tube station

Mindfulness and Stress Reduction: Learning to Surf on the Underground | Ayesha Nathoo

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Returning home one late summer afternoon, engulfed by crowds of bemused tourists, shoppers, and theatre-goers, I arrived at Covent Garden tube station to find it was shut. The information board, placed behind closed gates within the conspicuously empty station entrance, did not direct passengers to alternative transport routes or offer an explanation of the cause of the disruption. It simply read: You Can’t Stop The Waves But You Can Learn To Surf. Read More

Wear It, festival for wearable electronics and arts in Berlin | Josh Berson

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In light of the hype surrounding wearable computing it seems astonishing that it should have taken until now for Berlin to see a “festival for wearable electronics and arts.” On my desk, as I write, sit a pair of sample units from Misfit, a startup manufacturer of wearable actimeters. Misfit’s device, the Shine, is a triaxial accelerometer in an IPX8-rated housing (i.e., certified for continuous immersion—you can swim with it) that communicates with a handset via low-power Bluetooth. It classifies locomotion by mode and speed (walking, running, swimming), and Misfit is conducting trials to assess its value as a proxy for polysomnographic recording of sleep architecture. This is already the third or fourth generation of this type of consumer wearable instrumentation, and it represents just the earliest phase of rapidly growing market. Read More