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“No Time To Think” — Are Museums Part of the Problem Or Antidotes?

Has the worm turned? Are people weary of multi-tasking, interactivity, overcommitment, overextension and too tied to mobile devices?

BrainIf you read an article in the July 27 edition of The New York Times headlined No Time to Think, you learned two things. First, the answer is no. As the article said:

In 11 experiments involving more than 700 people, the majority of participants reported that they found it unpleasant to be alone in a room with their thoughts for just 6 to 15 minutes…

…It could be because human beings, when left alone, tend to dwell on what’s wrong in their lives. We have evolved to become problem solvers and meaning makers. What preys on our minds, when we aren’t updating our Facebook page or in spinning class, are the things we haven’t figured out — difficult relationships, personal and professional failures, money trouble, health concerns and so on. And until there is resolution, or at least some kind of understanding or acceptance, these thoughts reverberate in our heads. Hello rumination. Hello insomnia.

But the second thing the article said is that this is really harmful.

…Suppressing negative feelings only gives them more power, she said, leading to intrusive thoughts, which makes people get even busier to keep them at bay. The constant cognitive strain of evading emotions underlies a range of psychological troubles such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, depression and panic attacks, not to mention a range of addictions. It is also associated with various somatic problems like eczema, irritable bowel syndrome, asthma, inflammation, impaired immunity and headaches.

Studies further suggest that not giving yourself time to reflect impairs your ability to empathize with others….

Researchers have also found that an idle mind is a crucible of creativity. A number of studies have shown that people tend to come up with more novel uses for objects if they are first given an easy task that allows their minds to wander, rather than a more demanding one.

Of course, I’ve simplified here, but you can read the rest of the article at the link above.

As I read this article, I kept thinking two things — are museums becoming part of this problem? And how, instead, could they become part of the solution? Could museums be an antidote, or has — to borrow the old cliche — that train left the station?

I’m still thinking.


  1. Administering electric shock is not the only real life option for living with one’s demons. Museums most definitely are the antidote, as is most creative practice. The institutions with troubles usually show signs of having lost the inoculation among board and staff. The fix is to get them out of those sterile shock chambers and back into the richer realm where hands and mind have a medium. Arts managers, if you are staring blankly at your mission or budget and wondering why, it’s time to put down the buzzer and go on a site visit. In this instance, we are our own cure.

  2. Joyce Dade says:

    I don’t entirely know where museums come into play in this article or discussion. I have to admit I only skimmed the article, but it seems clear to me that the real cause of human avoidance of an inner life on a consistent basis has to do with the prijmary, primordial, existential experience. On the one hand perhaps and on the other, children and growing beings are active by necessity, and so are we when we are mentally stimulated and occupied in many tasks. Some people refer to be very busy, it makes them feel young, they believe, true or false that it keeps them young. I think there is something to this logic. I also think there is something to the reality of being brainwashed with new devices that are ruining so many lives, texting when driving, flying a plane, driving a train, God only knows the rest of it until we read about it in the newspapers or online. We can be active like kids but need to be wise like adults. Technology is hopefully here to further us not to ruin us but we need to be wise and we need to be adults. The existential piece of it? The great religions help us with the realities of our world. We come in alone we leave alone. Everything in the middle is pleasure and pain to one degree or another, but we have choice and we can hold ourselves to peace, love and brotherhood despite the lonliness we all experience and that other animals experience as well. It is love and brotherhood/sisterhood that will help us survive as a race, even if there are only two left as in the beginning. Museums? Museums may come, museums may go. A new one just opened in Istanbul, “The Museum of Innocence.” Now that’s a museum I would love to visit one day.

  3. When did we start equating museum work with creative practice? There’s a big difference between being an artist and producing things that find themselves in museums and the people hired to explain or rationalize their work.

    • Thanks for your comment — I don’t think I did equate museum work with creative practice. My point was something else: are museums also fostering the always-busy mentality or can they help show people how to take time to think.

  4. I was responding to Ann’s comment. In any case, I don’t think museums foster thinking. They reflect current museum practice.

    • My apologies. Now I do disagree, though. Museums can definitely provoke/foster thinking. They hold art and they create the environment in which people view art. That environment can be conducive to thought — or not.

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