For the last year or years, I’ve been operating with input jamming into my eyes, ears, and skin every waking moment of the day. Between the computer screen, podcasts, movies, music, and the sound of other peoples’ voices, I’ve given myself little time to listen to the silence (or the screaming) in my own head.
During one of my Twitter grazing sessions today, I ran across a post from @PopeHat saying something snarky about why he should’t listen to headphones when he’s out exercising. Peter Sagal replied to draw attention to his article ``The Case Against Running With Headphones’’, an exceprt from his book The Incomplete Book of Running.
Read the excerpt. Peter focuses on the way running without input allows him to exorcise toxic thoughts. The exorcism leads to self-attention that’s necessary for running. It’s a pattern and flow he values.
As I read his thoughts, I thought about the role walks have played in the history of mathematics. So many mathematicians in history have made time to walk, alone with their thoughts. Einstein. Reimann. Erdos. Wiles. On those walks they let their minds explore ideas. If they had been listening to a WalkMan or been plugged into AirPods, they would probably passed by inspiration on the trail, undiscovered.
I like listening to audio books or podcasts while I’m walking long distances on Santa Rosa Island for work. I like listening when I’m walking the dog at home. Listening makes the time pass more quickly. But listening also requires attention that could otherwise be lavished on my surroundings. Peter Sagal, in his piece, talks about how running across the land allows you to notice things that you wouldn’t if riding in a car or driving a bicycle. The gentle upward slope of a path. The dark scent of fertile shaded soil. If you have your head plugged into a player while walking or running, you will miss details around you, too. Those details are worth experiencing.
More important are the thoughts that rise up from the side of your mind, that you wouldn’t have encountered if you’ve been listening to James McMurtry, could be important thoughts. Thoughts that will help you grow as a person if you grapple with them. But you’ll miss them if you’re plugged in.