Easy Life = Easy Brain

Imagine a world where one did not have to walk because one could be transported magically to wherever one wishes instantaneously. Food is custom ordered and delivered on the spot, and technology allows us to do amazing things with a simple verbal command. Is this the perfect world envisioned by Star Trek with teleporters and replicators? Or is it the pessimistic outlook of WALL-E where people have evolved into fast-food dependent, “always-on” internet connected, pear-shaped blobs?

From the movie WALL*E
From the movie WALL*E

We understand that when it comes to muscles, you use it or lose it. In a world where good food costs more than junk food and technology has rendered much physical labour unnecessary, it’s no surprise that obesity is on the rise in Canada and the US.

But what about the damage to our thinking? It’s not just that junk food has been shown to reduce brain capacity and attention in kids. It’s that in a world where one does not have to do much, one also doesn’t have to think much. When life is easy, what need is there to think?

One of the features of modern civilization is the ever escalating level of convenience in everyday life. I was stunned to see at the grocery store that one could purchase carton of pre-whipped eggs. Convenience is not inherently bad. However, it can add another layer of abstraction where eggs come not from chickens, but from a carton. For a city kid like me, I already have enough dissociations from the realities of food (beef comes from supermarkets right?) that I can imagine a future generation of kids thinking that egg comes freshly squeezed out of a box!

Consequently, we also expect thinking to come out of a box too. Adult learning theory, some of which is good in principle, ends up being applied as “how to do we make learning as easy and painless as possible” such that classes are filled with simple and fun activities that engage and entertain but fail to educate. Thinking becomes divorced from the bloody and visceral realities of life.

Another example is in how we relate to our technology. In Shop Class as Soul Craft, Matthew Crawford laments the disappearance of the dipstick in some models of motorcycles. All the rider sees is a light that flickers on indicating a need to take it into the shop. The user becomes disconnected from the functional need of the oil and hence from how it works.

One could argue that having these conveniences free us to think about and do other things. I’d agree. I’m glad I don’t have to entirely understand my car. But what happens when we also don’t have to understand where our food comes from or where we get our comforts of civilization or how our financial markets works? I worry that when we delegate all critical areas of our lives to experts, we delegate away any sense of responsibility for what is real.

When life is smooth and easy and frictionless, we end up making up drama about little unimportant things. It’s not being able to find parking in a mall or being slighted by a friend’s comment that gets us up in arms. Like the child who doesn’t know how to get his own way, the adult who has not had any real responsibility will throw a tantrum at the slightest disturbance in the flow of the easy life.

Do we do enough then to strengthen our thinking muscle? Are we engaged with things that matter to life? That we care deeply about? That frustrates us and therefore pushes us to be and do better? Do we examine how we spend our time and our money? Or how about how we engage in our relationships with others and with the world?

To you now, how do you keep your thinking fitness up?

Chris Hsiung BSc. CPCC
U Venture

Chris Hsiung is the president of U Venture, a consulting practice that helps entrepreneurs and professionals develop their adaptive learning capacities to navigate uncertain times and build meaningful life ventures. He graduated with distinction from the University of Calgary in Electrical Engineering and is an internationally certified coach through the Coaches Training Institute (CTI). He is also a student and teacher of curriculum at Leadership Calgary and at Momentum.