Print this Article
Thursday, Dec. 11, 2014 12:01 am

American idle

My girlfriend is beautiful, highly intelligent and interesting. She’s smart for a living (as a strategic planner in advertising) so I find it sad that she watches so much television – maybe two hours of it upon coming home from work. She could be spending her time doing so many other things. – Dismayed

There comes a point in the day of a brainy person when she’s about a half-step from being entertained by cat toys.

But this is nothing to be boo-hooing about. Engineering professor Barbara Oakley explains in her neuroscience-based book on learning, A Mind for Numbers, that our brain has two modes of problem-solving that it shifts between. There’s the “Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it’s off to work we go!” focused mode and the resting-state, brain-in-the-La-Z-Boy diffuse mode. Focused-mode thinking is what we’re using when we put our attention on a problem or on learning, writing or memorizing. It’s direct and intense, like shining a flashlight on a raccoon.

But your brain is not a Denny’s and should not be expected to be “always open!” In fact, Oakley explains, you will be far more efficient if you take breaks and let your diffuse mode take over. This is the subconscious processing that goes on when you turn your focus away from a problem, like by taking a walk, cleaning the gerbil cage, or – horrors! – watching something dopey on TV. And while the focused mode can get you roadblocked into an overly narrow set of potential solutions, diffuse mode involves big-picture thinking that draws on a wide range of neural networks. This means that afterward, when you refocus on the problem, answers come more easily, and sometimes – almost magically – you experience the mental equivalent of going to sleep, having mop-wielding elves crawl out of your heat vent and then waking up to a blindingly clean kitchen floor.

Consider the sort of “slackers” who watch TV – like the late crime writer Elmore Leonard, who was awarded the National Book Foundation’s 2012 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. After a long day working on one of his 45 novels, he’d be on his couch watching “Jeopardy” and “Wheel of Fortune.” As my boyfriend (his researcher of 33 years) put it, “you could say, ‘Elmore, the Martians just landed on your tennis court,’ and he’d say, ‘Wait! It’s Final Jeopardy!’”

Sure, your girlfriend could be “doing so many other things,” like staring blankly into a bookcase or tossing back four martinis and passing out on the sofa with an olive in her ear. But TV-watching is the brain vacation that works for her. It’s only “sad” if her boyfriend, despite the neuroscience mini-tour above, remains too entrenched in his beliefs to respect a TV-watching woman. Unfortunately, once disgust for a partner is afoot in a relationship, the thing is probably shot. Though, rather incredibly, “the idiot box” can help a person be a smarter decision-maker at work, scientists have yet to discover any similarly unbelievable lowbrow cures for ailing romantic partnerships, like a month of eating Big Macs for a relationship-saving McDonald’s cleanse.

© 2014, Amy Alkon, all rights reserved. Got a problem? Write Amy Alkon, 171 Pier Ave., #280, Santa Monica, CA 90405, or email ( Weekly radio show:


  • Fri
  • Sat
  • Sun
  • Mon
  • Tue
  • Wed
  • Thu