Opinion | Our Brains Aren’t Designed To Handle The Trump Era
Whereas me? I’m a Cyclops. I tend to see one thing at a time. Before Trump, I could go days without looking at the newspaper. I’m partial to 19th-century novels, and I envy their heroines, who spend their days reading and needlepointing and playing piano. I find it far easier to tolerate the whistling emptiness of boredom than the casino rattle of too much stimulation.
But to opt out of this clanging multiverse is to live in mild estrangement. It’s to feel one’s self become a permanent spectator; to live with the persistent sense that something is always happening elsewhere; to feel old, outlasted, outmatched by the bizarre physics of your own lifetime: The great spinning world has toppled off its axis and rolled away.
It cannot be an accident that the lions of Silicon Valley, who live and die by the information whorl, are bullish on meditation. Bill Gates wrote a blog post a couple of months ago about it, praising the practice for focusing his busy mind. Twitter’s Jack Dorsey meditates, as we all learned from a string of insensitive tweets he recently unleashed from Myanmar. (It’s a fine line between mindfulness and mindlessness, apparently.) When the world’s coming at you in great clouds of 280-character Frisbees, naturally it’s tempting to vanish into the forest dark of your own mind.
Of course, complaints about the unmanageable velocity of the world have been with us since industrialization, if not before. I once joked to my husband that I feared napping because I might miss an indictment. Turns out Henry David Thoreau made a similar complaint in the age of the telegraph. “Hardly a man takes a half-hour’s nap after dinner,” he wrote, “but when he wakes he holds up his head and asks, ‘What’s the news?’ as if the rest of mankind had stood his sentinels.”
I’m not convinced, as some people are, that the Twitter fusillades from the White House are part of a larger strategy of distraction, specifically intended to divert us from this particular administration’s malfeasance and failures. I think our president’s attention span is genuinely scattershot. (“Post-literate,” Michael Wolff called him in “Fire and Fury.” Seems about right.) When I imagine his brain, I imagine a bug zapper in a drizzle. Bzzzzzzzzzzt. Fzzzz. Bzzz fzzz bzzzzzzzzzzt.
But Trump chaos, both intentional and otherwise, has proved a great de facto political strategy, precisely because we are neurologically incapable of handling it. The one thing we know about any interrupted activity is that it takes an awful lot of energy to return to whatever last had our attention.
For what it’s worth, Gloria Mark says that women, in her research, tend to self-interrupt less frequently than men. Daniel Levitin says the same, and that we seem to have more glucose available to replenish our battered neurons than men do. It’s an argument for having an all-female White House press corps. (Maggie Haberman and Ashley Parker: Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.)
Would that I were able to task-switch as they do. Would that we all could. Would that we all could return to the rhythms of a more civilized time, when we weren’t scanning the savanna for mortal threats every 30 seconds. It seems such an unfathomable luxury — almost as unfathomable as the Russians manipulating our elections, as a child billionaire selling our privacy down the river, as the Trump presidency itself.
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